Review: Stephen Sondheim's Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review: Stephen Sondheim's Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

“Who's that woman? That cheery, weary woman who's dressing for yet one more spree? Each day I see her pass, in my looking-glass-- Lord, Lord, Lord, that woman is me!”

Within the timeframe of Follies, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim/book by James Goldman, we see many types of women, who all fit into certain stereotypes: The stoic woman, the ditzy woman, the old woman, the young woman, the beautiful woman, the dowdy woman, the successful woman and the poor woman.

But the beauty of the piece is that not only are the women varied, so are the men. There aren’t only handsome men, who run away with the girl at the end. There is the man who never attracted any woman, except for pity. There is the man who has had five marriages, and now has an art collection to compensate. There is the man who never told the woman he loves that he adored her. The men are equally as pitiable and as fascinating as the varied “Beautiful Girls” of Follies.

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of the iconic, and now exceedingly popular, musical gave justice to a piece which now has had a resurgence in popularity.

In addition to this production at CST, a production opened at The Kennedy Center which has now transferred to Broadway, with Bernadette Peters as Sally and Elaine Paige as Carlotta.

But this production, directed by much-loved and inspired director Gary Griffin, has drawn much speculation and adulation in the Chicago press, and for good reason. The production is lovely, the cast is glimmering and the musicianship is top-notch.

This is definitely one of the glowing jewels of the Chicago theater season this year.

 

First, we must start with the inspired and brilliant stage design of Kevin Depinet. The elegant CST stage was transformed into a decrepit model of The Weismann Theater, complete with dirty bricks in piles and faded hardwood floors, including the faded area where a majestic red carpet runner once stood. The musicians, all twelve of them led by Valerie Maze at the keyboard, were arranged on rafters on the back of the theater wall, on different levels. They themselves were part of the scenery. When the scene changes from the dreary theater, which is soon to become a parking-lot, to the false “Loveland” Follies dream, the stage brightens up to colors of deep purple, bright red, and the effect is dazzling. The stage truly feels like it has been revised and renovated in a matter of seconds.

Gary Griffin truly understands what Follies is about: A balance between the main story featuring four flawed humans, and of the theater and its many inhabitants, including a few ghostly showgirls who prowl the stage and watch over the events of the evening. The stories had divides between them, making the audience aware that Ben, Sally, Buddy and Phyllis are almost truly not living in reality. The happiness of the other part guests does to faze them. Hence, they are ignored by the happy former Follies girls, guys and their spouses, leaving them to wallow in their own melodrama.

The original Broadway song list was used, leaving out the 1987 London production replacements, and the original Broadway non-revised book is used. I truly believe this is for good cause, because the London production’s book was more flawed than what critics said about the original book. Thus, Griffin chose to use the original, falling back onto much-needed tradition in this piece.

 

The cast list was without equal. This was by far the best-sung Follies I’ve heard. Susan Moniz and Robert Petkoff make a stunningly dysfunctional pair as Sally and Buddy. Moniz presents one of the best-sung Sally’s of recent times. Her “Losing my Mind” is the stuff of legends. Caroline O’Connor and Brent Barrett as Phyllis and Ben create an equally-disparate pair, Connor’s stoic and brashly-sung Phyllis playing well against Barrett’s warm, yet guarded, Ben.

The other Follies characters, and I do mean “characters”, are equally colorful, including Hollis Resnik’s vitriolic Carlotta, Kathy Taylor’s flirty and busty Solange, Mike Nussbaum’s jolly Dimitri Weismann, Nancy Voigts’ bouncy and peppy Stella, Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre’s adorable Whitman couple, Linda Stephen’s sanguine and diva-like Heidi, and Marilynn Bogetich’s crusty, yet loveable, Hattie. The younger portion of the cast was equally accomplished.

 

In addition, I have a few casual observances, some good and some bad:

  1. The tempo for “Rain on the Roof” was too slow.
  2. The staging for “Buddy’s Blues” was too gaudy, including a lime-green suit for buddy and two “almost” women.
  3. The audience seemed to respond, in applause volume, more to the real “Follies” numbers than the book-based main character present-day moments. It just struck me as being noteworthy.
  4. Caroline O’Conner’s speaking volume was sometimes too low for the space.

 

The production, as a whole, shimmered and gleamed brighter than almost any Follies that has even been seen. The mystique of the production, the brashly raw and real characters, the inspired direction and accomplished musicianship make this certainly a Chicago theater event for the ages. Anyone who misses this is surely not a “Broadway Baby.”

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