by Dan Zeff
October 13, 2011
Chicago—The Chicago Shakespeare Theater doesn't normally present musicals on its Courtyard main stage theater. But the CST is opening its season with a high risk Courtyard revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Follies," high risk because the show is hugely expensive to produce and devilishly tricky to stage. Plus, Sondheim's acerbic sophistication has never been an automatic attraction for the average theatergoer.
By a quirk of scheduling, "Follies" has also just opened on Broadway, drawing rave reviews and gathering weekly ticket sales in excess of $1 million. There's no way that the CST can approach those grosses and the musical's limited five-week run virtually guarantees the production will not make money, even if it sells out every performance. But the CST wanted to do the "Follies" and they have done it brilliantly. I can't recall a better acted, sung, and danced musical on an area stage since the earliest touring version of "A Chorus Line."
For "Follies," Sondheim invented a theater impresario named Dimitri Weismann who produced an annual series of spectacular theater revues in the early 1900's very much like the Ziegfeld Follies. Now Weismann is hosting a one-time reunion of members of those revues and their spouses. The reunion is being held in the ruins of the theater where Weismann presented his revues, a theater now being demolished to make way for a parking lot.
"Follies" has no real plot. For most of the show, veterans of the Weismann revues sing and dance numbers from their Follies performing days several decades earlier. They gossip and renew old acquaintances and then depart. The show focuses on two couples, ex chorus girls Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers and their husbands Buddy Plummer and Ben Stone respectively. Sally and Phyllis were best friends as Weismann chorus girls wooed by the youthful Buddy and Ben. The marriages were a disaster from the beginning and two couples can barely stand each other today. Sally really loved Ben, and their romance is rekindled during the evening's reunion.
An aura of nostalgia permeates "Follies," along with a sense of regret and rueful reflections of the roads in life not taken. Characters look back on the exuberant hopes of their youth and wonder where all that promise went. Mortality weighs heavily with them. They got old, and that makes them sad and disappointed.
Composer Sondheim and book author James Goldman connect the characters with their youth through ghost figures who drift through the action. Ben and Buddy and Sally and Phyllis appear as their younger selves back in 1941, when passions were hot and ambitions were glowing. The audience watches the seeds of their destructive marriages planted in the romantic confusions that tied the wrong young men with the wrong young women.
Goldman wrote a tight, concise book for "Follies" but the story is told primarily through Sondheim's music. Sondheim's score is a pastiche of styles celebrating the great names of musical theater, from the operettas of Victor Herbert through the modern styles of giants like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern (Sondheim's favorite), Rodgers and Hart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. The result is a sequence of musical numbers of extraordinary variety in the service of character exploration.
The CST has cast the production with a multi generational group of local performers, especially females who have entertained area audiences for decades—Nancy Voigts, Marilyn Bogetich, Ami Silvestre, Susan Moniz (Sally), Kathy Taylor, and Hollis Resnik among others. The production fills out its roster with a cluster of imports, notably Caroline O'Connor (Phyllis), Brent Barrett (Ben), and Robert Petkoff (Buddy). The sum total is an exceptional ensemble that delivers one showstopper after another.
Director Gary Griffin works under the considerable handicap of the CST's thrust stage, a configuration not hospitable to musicals. A proscenium stage would allow for an evocation of the ruined interior of the theater that encloses the actions and reinforces the sense of time passed. Griffin mounts the orchestra at the rear of the stage and funnels the action to the bare thrust playing area that penetrates the audience on three sides. There is little sense of place in the staging and the ghosts of past chorus girls don't make much impact.
Undeterred, Griffin still creates a triumphant sequence of production numbers. My favorite, "Who's That Woman," gathers five matronly Weismann ladies with their young ghost counterparts in an intricate display of song and dance. Moniz, O'Connor, Resnik, Voigts, and Taylor established themselves in Chicagoland music theater with their singing and acting. Who knew they could dance up such a storm? There is a stunning duet between Linda Stephens as elderly Weismann star Heidi Schiller performing the operetta duet "One More Kiss" with her younger self, sung by Kari Sorenson, thrilling the listener with its sheer vocal brilliance.
The score explodes the canard that Sondheim is an emotional cold fish as a composer. No cold fish could have written the stirring song of survival "I'm Still Here" (sung magnificently by Resnik as Carlotta) or the aching ballad "Losing My Mind" (an exceptionally powerful rendition by Moniz).
There are about 40 performers in the production and they all deserve the highest praise, from the principals to the chorus. The CST cast the ageless Chicagoland favorite Mike Nussbaum as Weismann, giving audiences an additional treat. The man belongs on a theatrical Mount Rushmore.
Virgil Johnson has designed the vast wardrobe of costumes that shuttle back and forth between 1971 and 1941 and earlier. Kevin Depinet's scenic design is minimalist but functional. Christine Binder designed the dramatic lighting and Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli the sound. Alex Sanchez is the choreographer. "Follies" isn't a dancing show but where dancing is called for, Sanchez is spot-on. Brad Haak's musical direction is first class.
"Follies" is now established as one of the pinnacles of twentieth-century music theater, but because of its production demands it's rarely revived. Now there are major productions on Broadway and in Chicago, which must give Sondheim a satisfying feeling of vindication. The Broadway presentation looks set for an extended run. The CST apparently is locked into its five weeks, so anyone with the merest interest in musical theater greatness needs to seize the moment.
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