Thursday, October 27, 2011

One of Life's Great 'Follies' - Theatre Review

Theatre Review

a musical by Stephen Sondheim
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Thru November 13

From my perspective, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre should be renamed the Chicago Sondheim Theatre. For I've yet to see any of the Bard's plays there, but have now seen all five of CST's wonderful, Gary Griffin-directed productions of classic Stephen Sondheim musicals.

I'm sure the theater does a great job with the works of Sir William, but with the only other show I've seen there being a play about another musical genius--Amadeus--the sublime renditons of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Passion and now Follies have been absolute treats. To the point that I would gladly subscribe if CST wanted to present a Sondheim series.

In fact, Follies is one of the rare shows in Chicago in recent memory for which I've paid full price--$55 on Sunday night--and I feel lucky to have gotten a ticket.

Such is my regard for the venue's Sondheim productions--the current hit show is in the CST's large theater but all of his other musicals ran in the studio theater upstairs--that Follies was a "must-see" despite my having seen the show's current Broadway revival in August.

That version was filled with Tony winners--Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell--and other musical theater luminaries, including Elaine Paige, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines. It was quite good, with many outstanding indvidual performances on the various "pastiche" numbers--songs showcasing each of aging, former Follies girls who have gathered for a reunion--but as I wrote here (my review is contained within), the show felt like its parts were greater than its sum.

Certainly, there were many great showstopping performances at CST too, where several cast members had Broadway credits and/or impressive local resumes, but perhaps due to more intimate confines, the entire affair congealed a bit better.

Although Follies has an interesting conceit--former showgirls reuniting 30 years after Weismann's Follies (a la Ziegfield) had its last revue, and before their old theater gets wrecking balled--it works better (at least on the surface) as pure entertainment.

Literally without missing a beat, Sondheim wondrously weaves the diverse pastiche numbers--his mimicking of Gershwin and other early 20th century composers--with songs supporting the story of Sally/Buddy and Phyllis/Ben, who are married couples and former friends.

That storyline, filled with regret and recriminations, certainly has a fair amount of compelling pathos and songs that support it ("Buddy's Eyes," "The Right Girl," "The Road You Didn't Take).

But even on a third viewing of Follies--and second in 10 weeks--something about the romantic tale remains obtuse, especially amidst the pastiche musical pastries, particularly in giving way to Loveland, the show within the show in which the Buddy, Sally, Phyllis and Ben get their own pastiche numbers.

It's somewhat short-shrifting Sondheim, book writer James Goldman, Griffin and the exemplary cast to say one should avoid over analysis and just enjoy the songs, but even if you don't quite get it all, Follies remains tremendously entertaining, particularly in this stellar production.

Susan Moniz is quite good as Sally, delivering a chilling version of "Losing My Mind," while another longtime Chicago favorite, Hollis Resnik, sings "I'm Still Here" as well as Sondheim devotees could hope. While Caroline O'Connor doesn't imbue the role of Phyllis with the same glamour Jan Maxwell does on Broadway,  she certainly has adequate dramatic and vocal chops.

It seemed that both male leads--Robert Petkoff as Buddy and Brent Barrett as Ben--were, or at least looked, too young for their roles of men in their 50s, but they both gave strong performances. And as always, it was fun to see the legendary Mike Nussbaum, playing the elderly impresario Dimitri Weismann with typically wry panache.

While I don't know that I noted any overly crafty directorial choices by Griffin--such as with his minimalist take on Pacific Overtures--but the production used the Shakespeare's Courtyard Theatre well, with cast members routinely existing the stage through the auditorium aisles. Probably the best touch was having the orchestra on stage as a backdrop to all else going on. They sounded great and gave the proceedings a feel both classy and classic.

As much as I love Sondheim, I must admit that I often have some difficulty with his works in the moment I'm watching them. For as great as Follies was on Sunday night, I didn't leave the theater with quite the feeling of ebullience that more traditionally upbeat musicals (such as Mary Poppins, which I will be reviewing soon) provide.

But I think that's part of what makes Sondheim, and many of his works, including Follies, so great. Rather than being--at least by the finale--joyously crowd-pleasing, his shows often have a pervading melancholy or darkness that can be discomfiting. But outstanding works of art often involve an element of challenge, and while there is plenty in CST's rendition of Follies that's easily enjoyable, along with the exceptional score it's the troubling underbelly that makes this a musical worthy of deeper exploration.

Dedicated Sondheim fans might be interested in his upcoming appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I've already got my tickets.

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