Sondheim showcases his talent for torch songs
|Chicago Shakespeare presents|
Review by Keith Ecker
Stephen Sondheim‘s 1971 classic musical Follies is sweeping the nation by storm…kind of. Earlier this year, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts produced a month-long run of the play, which is about the reunion of a troupe of vaudevillian performers and their unfulfilled dreams. The success of the production led to a limited engagement at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway, which as of this writing is still ongoing. Now the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is getting on the revival bandwagon and has produced their own version, which is an engaging caravan of catchy song after catchy song punctuated by speed bumps of contrived dialogue and bland characterization.
Follies is at its best when its characters are doing what characters do in a musical—sing and dance. From the beautiful ’40s era showgirls who twirl in scanty garb to the sweetly wistful choreography of the "mirror dance," this show hits its stride during the numbers. I still can’t get Susan Moniz‘s (as Sally Durant Plummer) rendition of "Losing My Mind" out of my head, a haunting torch song about obsessive yet unrequited love. Hollis Resnik as Carlotta Campion does a magnificent job belting out "I’m Still Here," a crowd-pleasing song about resilience in the face of the hardships of life. And Caroline O’Connor as Phyllis Roger Stone tantalizes as she keeps up with her young male co-stars during the Fosse-esque dance number of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."
But despite a stage full of triple threats, the play tends to come to a crawl during the scenes that attempt to build on the complexities of the relationships between playboy Benjamin Stone (Brent Barrett, who boasts a voice like thick velvet), his neglected wife Phyllis, the perennial chump Buddy Plummer (Robert Petkoff) and his forlorn wife Sally. Yes, it’s interesting to see how drama that arose in youth still plagues these people decades later. But when the dialogue is a series of quirky quips straight out of a detective movie, it’s hard to feel genuine sympathy for them. It’s visually interesting, however, to see the distraught lovers’ younger selves share the stage with their adult counterparts, which helps illustrate how one’s position in life may change while patterns of behavior are much more stubborn.
The musical’s two uneven acts are night and day from one another. The first act concentrates on the reunion of the aging performers who used to put on "Follies," a fictional burlesque show that saw its heyday in the former portion of the 20th century. In this act, we meet the large cast of characters and get a taste from each about how their lives have changed, for better or worse. Some have chosen to futilely fight fate tooth and nail, while others have accepted their off-stage status and actively relish their golden years. Meanwhile, the spiritual embodiment of the old theater—portrayed by a stunningly feathered showgirl—haunts the stage, watching over its old inhabitants.
While the first act is rooted in reality and sweet reminisces, the second act explodes with absurd imagery and bizarre fantasy as we delve into the psyches of the plays’ four central characters. Disjointed and jarring, this is the tonal downhill rollercoaster plunge of the play. Director Gary Griffin has orchestrated a stunning collage of visuals, from the neon vibrancy of Buddy’s costume to the smoky purple luminescence of Sally’s spotlight. If only the characters had an opportunity to better develop the stakes of their relationships in the first act, the play’s cacophonous ending might have left the audience with a real sense of tragedy.
The music of Follies is heavy on the hooks, making the score pleasantly infectious. The cast is chockfull of heavy hitters who know how to use the power of their voices for maximum effect. It’s just the story of the tragic lovers that doesn’t live up to the rest of the production. But I suppose it’s easy to get overshadowed when you’re competing with quintessential Sondheim.
Follies continues through November 13th at Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theatre at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map), with performances Tuesdays at 7:30, Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $55-$75, and are available by phone (312-595-5600) or through the theater’s website. More information at ChicagoShakes.com. (Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, which includes one intermission)
All photos by Liz Lauren
Adrian Aguilar, Devin Archer, Brent Barrett, Marilynn Bogetich, Rachel Cantor, Julius C. Carter, Bill Chamberlain, L.R. Davidson, Jen Donohoo, David Elliott, Jenny Guse, Rhett Guter, Dennis Kelly, Andrew Keltz, Amanda Kroiss, Nate Lewellyn, Susan Moniz, Christina Myers, Mike Nussbaum, Caroline O’Connor, Robert Petkoff, Hollis Resnik, Ami Silvestre, Kari Sorenson, Linda Stephens, Amanda Tanguay, Kathy Taylor, Nancy Voigts,
behind the scenes
Gary Griffin (director); Brad Haak (music director); Kevin Depinet (scenic design); Virgil C. Johnson (costumes); Christine A. Binder (lighting); Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli (sound design); Melissa Veal (wig, make-up design); Alex Sanchez (choreography); Deborah Acker (stage manager); David Siegel (orchestral reductions); Liz Lauren (photos)
Valerie Maze (conductor, piano); Andrew McCann (violin); Jill Kaeding (cello); Sean McNeely, Brian Shannon (woodwinds); Larry Bowen, Justin Woodward (trumpet); Scott Bentall (trombone); Christian Dillingham (bass); Jim Widlowski (percussion, keyboard); Ben Melsky (harp)