“Follies” Review — Dazzling and Provocative

To tweak a lyric from another Stephen Sondheim musical: “Send in the crowds.” Director Gary Griffin’s production of Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater hones the dual edges of Sondheim’s art for a work that is as sharp as it is beautiful. For Sondheim fans, Follies is a must-see. For those who aren’t sure if they like Sondheim, this production of Follies is likely to produce converts.

 

Sondheim’s work can be a tough nut to crack. The composer/lyricist celebrates the American musical at the same time he subverts it. Audiences want to be entertained — and Sondheim’s arch lyrics and lilting tunes provide plenty of entertainment — but audiences also will be forced to think. Follies, with a smart book by James Goldman, serves up a full menu: a smorgasbord of desserts, but at some point you’ll have to eat your broccoli, chewing on issues like the challenges of aging and the fickleness of love.

 

Brent Barrett with Jenny Guse, Christina Myers, Amanda Tanguay and Amanda Kroiss

The story is deceptively simple, the staging crystal clear. Set in 1971, when the original Broadway version opened, Follies reunites the showgirls who 30 years earlier strutted their stuff in a Ziegfeld Follies–type revue. Two of the women, Phyllis and Sally, had shared an apartment, and, as it turns out, a lover. Throw in some assorted vaudevillians and a couple of former stage-door Johnnies now married to Phyllis and Sally, and the stage of the once glorious Broadway theater, now slated to become a parking lot, is set.

 

Topping the list of reasons to see this Follies is its cast, triple-threat actors/singers/dancers from Chicago and Broadway, each ideally matched to a role. The cast is large, with 29 actors, some portraying the younger selves of the middle-aged characters who have arrived for their reunion, all of them lubricated with free-flowing cocktails. At the climax of the action, the four main characters argue in vain with their younger incarnations, as if they could prevent themselves from making the mistakes that marked their lives. The cacophony ceases only with the deus ex machina entrance of the ghost-like Showgirl (Jen Donohoo), lowered from above in a feathered hoop. At other moments in the musical the Showgirl glides through the action, slicing through time.

 

Jen Donohoo as the ghostly Showgirl

Everyone in the cast is worth watching and all have their moments in the spotlight. Caroline O’Connor nails the role of Phyllis, delivering her stinging dialog and smoky ballads with enough edge to slice through the fantasies of the others characters. O’Connor is also an accomplished dancer whose fluid and muscular movement brings down the house in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” As the Young Phyllis, the standout Rachel Cantor portrays the character when Phyllis was defined by vulnerability, rather than sharpness.

Caroline O'Connor dances with Rhett Guter and Julius C. Carter

 

Susan Moniz is appealing as Sally, her honeyed voice soaring in “Losing my Mind.” Sally arrives early to the reunion, wearing a pink dress more fitting for a teenager at a prom than for a woman of close to 50. All the costumes, designed by Virgil C. Johnson, speak volumes, and Sally’s pink dress telegraphs her naïveté even before she speaks. Later, doubting herself, she says, “I should have worn green.” Sally has flown in from Phoenix without her traveling salesman husband, Buddy (Robert Petkoff), but with a plan to rekindle a romance with Benjamin Stone(Brent Barrett), an East Coast diplomat married to Phyllis. Buddy soon arrives to foil Sally’s plan. Petkoff and Barrett are both terrific, completing the perfectly cast foursome.

On right: Hollis Resnik and Susan Moniz recapturing their past

 

The well-paced show allows time for plenty of other star turns, most notably Chicago favorite Hollis Resnik as Carlotta Campion, a former Follies girl who finds well-paid work on television and sexual gratification in the arms of a 26-year-old boy toy. Resnik’s rendition of “I’m Still Here” is rich and full of meaning. Real-life spouses Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre bring genuine affection to the roles of Theodore and Emily Whitman, punctuating “Rain on the Roof” with kisses. Their example of a successful relationship gives the audience something to cling to after the storybook romances of the other characters are deflated.

 

In a cameo role as theater impresario Dimitri Weismann, 87-year-old local legend Mike Nussbaum is irresistible as he enters with a bespangled, statuesque young blonde on his arm. Also excellent areNancy Voigts as Stella Deems, Marilynn Bogetich as Hattie Walker, Kathy Taylor as Solange LaFitte and Linda Stephens as Heidi Schiller.

 

Dennis Kelly & Ami Silvestre, Marilynn Bogetich, Kathy Taylor

A 12-person orchestra produces opulent sound. Seated onstage, the musicians are conducted by associate musical director Valerie Maze, on piano. The lively choreography is by Alex Sanchez, with musical direction by Brad Haak. Scenic designer Kevin Depinet, lighting designer Christine Binder, sound designers Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli and wig and makeup designer Melissa Veal all deserve applause.

 

Chicago Shakespeare’s 500-seat Courtyard Theater, with its thrust stage, makes for an intimate experience, especially for those seated near the aisles through which the players enter and exit. Patrons seated by the sides of the stage, however, may find themselves behind much of the action.

 

One of the great pleasures of Follies is that is does not follow the tired formulas of much musical theater. As we learn more about the characters, we realize that our initial impressions of them may not hold. We have to reevaluate things, do a little work, eat our broccoli. It’s good for us, and there’s plenty for dessert.

 

Follies runs through November 13 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Tickets $55–$75 with special discounts available for groups of 10 or more. Patrons receive a 40% discount on guaranteed parking in Navy Pier garages. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office at 312.595.5600 or visit the Theater’s website at www.chicagoshakes.com/follies.

 

Photos: Liz Lauren

 

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