Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Goldman
Directed by Gary Griffin
Only one play on your list? Make it this one!
On April 4, 1971, the prestigious The New York Times failed to appreciate an extraordinary new Broadway musical. The play got raves in the national press but lack of local enthusiasm caused it to close after 522 performances. This was in spite of the fact that it won the New York Drama Critics Award, was nominated for 11 Tony awards and won seven: Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Alexis Smith) Original Score, Direction, Choreography and Scenic, Costume and Lighting Design
Forty years later, on Sept 12, 2011, the newspaper got a chance to redeem itself when Follies once more opened in New York. This time, they got it right!
Oh, not all was lost in the intervening years. Many revivals have been mounted and several of Stephen Sondheim’s songs went on to garner individual fame as singles: Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here, Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You? and the wonderful torch song Losing My Mind.
Now it is Chicago’s turn! And the recent New York opening — even with such a stellar star as Bernadette Peters — couldn’t surpass the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production. If this review were limited to just one word, that word would be magnificent! What a sight for the eyes, what a pleasure for the ears, what a treat for the mind.
While with most musicals, the plot is the least of it, Follies offers an exception, weaving nostalgia into a rather psychological study of two struggling couples as they revisit their youth and reevaluate their life (and particularly their marital) choices.
The occasion is the reunion of the lovely chorines who graced the former Weismann (read Ziegfeld) Follies 30 years earlier and who now gather for one last time before the demolition of their theater – soon to become a parking lot. Each showgirl appears in two incarnations—as her present self (ranging from middle to old age) and as her younger counterpart, garbed in appropriate glamorous, glittering costume. There is even a ghostly stunner complete with plumed headdress.
The guests reminisce and then perform the routines of their dancing days – shadowed by their ethereal counterparts. The effect is dazzling, especially in the show stopping number Who’s That Woman, where they sing to imaginary mirrors, seeking to clarify their identities.
With his usual effervescent verve, Mike Nussbaum plays Dimitri Weismann, the impresario who reassembles his cast. The story then focuses on two showgirls who married their stage door Johnnies: the pleasant Sally (Susan Moniz) and her salesman husband Buddy (Robert Petkoff) Plummer, and the far wealthier, more sophisticated, edgy Phyllis (Caroline O’Connor) and Ben (Brent Barrett) Stone. The complication is that Sally has always yearned for her friend’s husband Ben.
Act I deals with the interplay between the couples which is also juxtaposed against their younger selves (played charmingly by L.R. Davidson, Andrew Keltz, Adrian Aguilar, and Rachel Cantor).
All is punctuated by the guests who trot out their original routines.
Act II is amazing, taking this even further as the routines become more and more compelling and we are carried back into the vaudeville days of the original, sumptuous follies – now long lost but hopefully not forgotten. This is more than a recap, however, because each specific routine reinforces the original story line. Buddy morphs into a carefree comic, capering with young Sally and his current mistress Marge (Amanda Tanguay) in a hilarious threesome. Sally and Phyllis belt out bitter, impassioned commentaries on their lives and Ben, swaggering in a white suit struts his stuff until overwhelmed by the enormity of his decisions.
The whole play is very much a tribute to the past, with music reflective of the particular time frames. All culminates with the routine ensemble performance of LOVELAND – a parody of the saccharine belief in the curative powers of love:
Time stops, hearts are young,
Only serenades are sung
Where everybody lives co love.
Raindrops never rain,
Every road is Lovers’ Lane
Under Gary Griffin’ fine direction, the 40-member cast is excellent – in voice and character depiction — doing justice to the complexity of the story and the brilliant score. Three songs – and their renditions — are outstanding, a tribute to the poignancy of Sondheim’s melodies and the wit and versatility of his lyrics: Hollis Resnik who as aging diva Carlotta Campion, brought down the house with her rendition of I’m Still Here, Moniz for Losing My Mind and O’Connor for Could I Leave You.
Beverly Friend, Ph. D.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, www.chicagoshakes.com, tickets $55-$75, Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 1 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. (and 6 pm on 10/23). Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes including a 15 minute intermission, through Nov. 11, 2011. Forty percent parking discount at Navy Pier garages.
Tom Williams’ Reflections on Follies:
Kudos to the fabulous Chicago cast members and to director Gary Griffin for mounting a world-class production of Follies. Congratulations to Stephan Sondheim for his pastiche of Broadway show tunes from the Follies Era (Sondheim defines pastiche as “Fond imitations, unlike parodies or satires, which make comment on the work or the style being imitated.”) Lastly, to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for spending whatever it took to mount a costume and set rich production. We can hope that each year, Chicago Shakespeare Theater will mount a seldom-done Broadway musical. (Hint: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn)