Because of his beauty and his promise as a dancer, actor and choreographer, Fred Herko was known as New York’s Golden Boy. He had it all; talent, looks and opportunity. Unfortunately, Fred Herko also had a drug problem. It was the beginning of the 1960s, the sexual revolution was in full swing, and the popular drugs of choice were speed and LSD. Deborah Lawlor was in New York City during those years and she fell under the spell of the Golden Boy. Out of that experience, Lawlor wrote a very personal and revealing chapter book, now a hybrid play/dance titled Freddy produced by The Fountain Theatre in partnership with the Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy.
Freddy is beautifully directed by Frances Loy and is now playing at the Caminito Theatre, located on the LACC campus. In her story, Lawlor refers to herself as Shelley. The older Shelley is portrayed with grace and great skill by Susan Wilder, and the younger Shelley by Katie McConaughy. Older Shelley acts as narrator, telling the story of Herko’s final months. She stands with and comforts her younger self, while explaining how she fell in love with a man who was gay and a drug addict. As an aspiring dancer, she sees his talents and wants to be part of Herko’s bright future that everyone in New York is convinced lies ahead. A naïve Shelley falls in love with his charm, his beauty, his artistry and his promise.
The Caminito Theatre is basically a black box theater. Tesshi Nakagawa uses different levels of scaffolding to create a stark environment much like the New York tenement apartments and studio lofts of that period. The lighting by Derek Jones is also harsh, except during the scenes that take place in Pop Artist Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory, which was then located on East 47th Street, in Midtown Manhattan.
The title role is played by Marty Dew; whose strong acting talents make up for his limited dance experience. Dew gives a powerful portrayal of a sensitive and gentle man haunted by personal demons and driven by many sexual desires. McConaughy is very good as the young Shelley and Mel England delivers a convincing portrayal of the famous dancer, choreographer and designer James Waring. Savannah Rutledge stands out as the drug dealer and witch Arione, as does Jacqueline Mohr as an inspiring writer Diane; Lamont Oakley as Shelley’s husband Pete; and Jamal Hopes as Johnny.
Freddy holds one’s attention and interest, but it has its weaknesses, most significantly the limited dance training of the cast. They noticeably slip out of character during the dance class and performance scenes. They are good actors and Cate Caplin, Movement and Dance Director, has managed to make them look good. It is obvious, however, that she was limited when it came to choreographing movement for this cast.
Beyond this weakness, Freddy is a commanding production. I commend Deborah Lawlor for providing a glimpse into the private world of Fred Herko and his place in dance history; a history that is unknown to many. The rumors in New York about Fred Herko’s death were that he leapt out the window of Johnny Dodd’s five-story apartment because he thought that he could fly. The phrase “It’s flying or dying” is repeated throughout the one-hour production, giving voice to the rumors or mythology of the time. In truth, Herko was troubled, suicidal and desperately wanted to succeed as a dancer artist. His personal problems and addiction led to his leaping to his death on October 27, 1964 at the age of 28. It was flying or dying for Fred Herko. Sadly, the Golden Boy chose to fly to his death, robbing the world of a great talent.
The Fountain Theatre and the LACC Theatre Academy have put together a production that dancers and anyone interested in dance should see. With Freddy, one learns much about one of America’s unsung dance pioneers, Fred Herko. For more information and tickets, click here.