Bitterness and regret twine like barbed wire around the unmistakable core of a love story that lies buried deep within Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. As marriages go, that of ex-showgirl Phyllis and her diplomat husband Benjiman isn’t pretty. Or very nice. In Sondheim’s work, love – like art – is never easy. In Follies, (as the title suggests), being in love isn’t a state of pastel rainbows and diamond-sparkly happily-ever-afters.Sondheim dispenses with such sentimentality, instead creating a love story defined by the double-edge knife of hard-won wisdom, a blade that slices up the heart and leaves it toughened by scar tissue.
Director Gary Griffin gets all of this, and imbues Chicago Shakespeare staging with all the razzle dazzle you’d expect from a show about showgirls. Set during a reunion of ex-Weisman Girls – Dmitri Weisman (Mike Nussbaum) being the stand-in for vaudeville impresario Florenz Ziegfeld – Follies unfolds in 1971 in a dilapidated theater, a formerly glamorous and bustling locale slated for demolition. On the eve of its destruction, the girls of Weisman’s shows from the turn of the century through the early 1940s arrive for one last look at their former dancing ground. As the reunion opens a complex network of old wounds and unfinished business, Follies spins from a traditional book musical into a sung-through revue and a structure that seems to mirror Weisman’s Follies themselves.
It’s tough to imagine an ensemble more exquisitely cast then this group. One of the reasons Follies is done so rarely is because of the huge demands it makes of its ensemble both in terms of vocal and acting ability. There aren’t just a few leads required to carry this show: Every part has a showcase showstopper, with styles ranging from vaudeville schtick to full-throttle belting to he-done-me-wrong torch song. Further, each character is mirrored by his or her younger self: Ghosts of the past literally shadow the gathering.
The collision – or perhaps merger - of idealistic, passionate youth with the adults who have long since compromised their way into lives (and follies) beyond Weisman’s Follies makes for one of Sondheim’s most haunting musicals. Follies is tragic without being a tragedy. Instead of a Grand Guignol of death and destruction, the sadness comes in the guise of everyday moments – every day a little, unremarkable death, arriving when the sun comes up, embedded in the coffee cups and the buttons and the bread.
If all that sounds relentlessly grim, it isn’t. Follies is also a story of survival, of toughness and of the ability of the human spirit to rebound from the most shattering rejections be they personal or professional. Perhaps nowhere is the triumph of endurance felt with more hard-won elation than it is in anthemic I’m Still Here, performed here with downright hair-raising power by Hollis Resnik. It’s easy to take the song’s show-stopping prowess for granted. Between the marvelous lyrics and the music’s relentless build, it’s the kind of tune that could get an ovation were it recited in muffled monotone. Resnik takes nothing for granted.She starts almost casually, seated and shrugging and then builds with a steady, driving intensity that seems to fill the theater until it seems the very walls must burst under the might of her delivery. It’s a bravura performance of a bravura song -a perfect storm of show and showmanship.
Resnik is hardly the only one delivering a mega-wattage performance with Follies. As Phyllis, Caroline O’Conner seems to be all hard edges and seen-it-all cynicism. There’s a disturbing animosity between Phyllis and her diplomat husband Benjamin Stone (Brent Barrett), a sense of viciousness and a mutual desire to hurt that becomes palpable in almost all of their scenes together, (save a single, quasi-redemptive utterly believable 180 degree turn at the very end.) When O’Connor lets loose on Could I Leave You, the hatred and disgust she has for Benjamin becomes almost too ferocious to bear. It fills the room, anger swelling out until all is rage.Later, O’Connor proves she can dance as well as she can sing with The Story of Lucy and Jessie. The fast-moving, tongue-twisting story of two very different women each longing to be the other is at once a biting cautionary tale and a blow-the-roof off dance number for O’Connor and a pair of perfectly sculpted chorus boys. O’Connor dances with a furious grace that makes it seem as if her life depends on the outcome of the song. She’s absolutely electric delivering in both voice and movement.
Then there’s Susan Moniz, as Sally. She’s the girl who fell in love with Benjamin Stone when he was a stage door Johnny and – despite having a long marriage with Benjamin’s best friend Buddy – remains in love with the man who got away. To Moniz falls what’s come to be our personal favorite Sondheim song in the composer’s pantheon of amazing music. Losing My Mind is a number about how the smallest, simplest things can become dominated by all-powerful thoughts of another. The opening line is extraordinary in its simplicity: “The sun comes up. I think about you. The coffee cup. I think about you.” Embedded within the most banal moments of everyday life – coffee cups and such – are the most overwhelmingly huge emotions that must be dealt with. Sally becomes literally paralyzed during the song – not moving left, not moving right, trying to reconcile a love she’s been carrying since 1941.
Collateral damages ensue as Sally tries to leave Buddy, the man who married her, stayed with her and loved her dearly even as she pined for Ben. Robert Petkoff’s take on Buddy Plummer is not to have the man mope along in a room with the shades drawn So his wife thinks she’s in love with someone else?.Buddy has his own weapons in this fight, namely that he still loves Sally, and that emotion won’t curl up and die simply because she’s momentarily in the arms of another. He vents his angry is a surreal slap-sticky happy Buddy’s Blues, a candy-colored, clown-faced take on the age old problem of wanting women only until you realize they want you too, in which case, they automatically become suspect and not people you’d want to spend time with.
Made up like a clown with comically rouged cheeks and oversized bright rubber shoes and a fat bowtie, Petkoff sings in the broad, comic style of Al Jolson, popping the eyes and wiggling the jazz hands to frame his face as he launches into “Gee-I-got those-‘God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later’Blues,/That-‘Long-as-you-ignore-me-you're-the-only-thing-that-matters’. The push-me/pul-lyou energy of the song is an absolute hoot – so long as you don’t take those sad, sad words to heart.
By the finale, all the fraught conflicts have been if not solved, at least reached some sort of closure. It’s a closure that for some will leave open wounds in need to tending, It’s an real life Ever After ending, rather than the impossible Happily Ever After.
Follies’ owes a tremendous debt to the on-stage 12-person orchestra, under the direction of Brad Haak. Obviously without an orchestra up to the challenges of Follies’ luscious, varied endlessly memorable score, the show would founder irredeemably. That doesn’t happen here. Moreover, Virgil C. Johnson’s costume design captures the character of each of the one-time Follies girls; Carlotta swans about in a fur stole, Sally is prom-pink in a dress that speaks to youthful – perhaps immature – excitement of the evening.
In Kevin Depinet’s set design, Follies truly looks as if it’s playing out on an old vaudeville palace. If you see one musical this season, this is the one.
Follies continues through Nov 13 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand Ave. on Navy Pier. For ticket infoprmation go to www.chicagoshakes.com
For more reviews of productions at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, click here (The Madness of King George) here (As You Like It) here (Romeo and Juliet), here (The Taming of the Shrew), here (Richard III) , here (Macbeth), here (A Midsummer Night's Dream), here (Private Lives), here (Amadeus) and here (Funk it Up About Nothing).