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Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ at CST: Broadway glitz and glamour, with all the endearing bruises

Submitted by on Oct 14, 2011 – 12:17 pm

Review: “Follies,” by James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Nov. 13.

By Nancy Malitz

Time has passed. Taken with it the chorus lines. The proscenium arch. The plush orchestras and styles so vivid we know them by their creators’ first names — Irving, Sigmund, Cole, Noel, Oscar, Jerome, Ira, Dorothy….

But oh, you Broadway Baby. You’re still here.

When Stephen Sondheim gave us “Follies,” his unabashedly affectionate 1971 tribute to the showbiz he adored, he also gave us Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, contemporary ’70s couples facing their own 50th birthdays and the bridge to our own time.

Former song-and-dance kids, now dismayingly mortal, they have gathered at an onstage party thrown by their old impresario as his crumbling theater faces the wrecking ball. Aswirl in the huge memories of all assembled, the four yearn for do-overs, last chances, settling scores and deadening booze.

So here we are 40 years later, doing tributes of our own. Modern theater companies have shown us they can pare Broadway’s glamorous old shows to the bone. Vest-pockets everywhere go spare on sets and minimal on costumes as they double up on parts and gut the orchestra. I applaud them for their spunk.

But with “Follies” of all shows, one craves the bigness, the brashness, the heady glam. If not “Diamonds and pearls, Dazzling jewels by the score,” then enough, at least, to make you very glad you came.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has given us a “Follies” sized just right, with a carefully miked 12-piece orchestra that sounds wonderful. There are fabulous costumes and enough people in the cast to make a parade of showgirls seem like a major event. The set design both spoofs and preserves the traditional proscenium feel. Gary Griffin’s directorial approach uses CST’s thrust stage to let Sondheim, at his most searing, whisper in your ear.

And snuck in quite knowingly, just toward end when I was starting to miss it, we get some show-stopping dance. Caroline O’Connor, who is delicious throughout as the acid-tongued Phyllis, stopped the show as she strutted her leggy stuff in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” backed with high energy by dancers Julius C. Carter and Rhett Guter.

This is one Phyllis with Velma in her veins, and you don’t have to wait until Act 2 to find out O’Connor’s a killer. Her Act 1 deadpan “Could I Leave You?” (“Well, I guess you could leave me the house, Leave me the flat, Leave me the Braques and Chagalls and all that…”) is another peak experience.

Phyllis’ husband is the suave and apparently successful Ben, played by Brent Barrett, the other first among peers in this solid cast. Barrett’s a true Broadway baritone, an expressive singing actor with a leading man’s ways and a lovely tenorial top, and what he does in his revelatory number of pain he barely fathoms (“The Road You Didn’t Take”) is deeply touching.

CST regulars Susan Moniz and Robert Petkoff portray the other couple — naive Sally, who still has a crush on Ben, and her hapless husband, Buddy. Although he was almost too frenetic to deliver the right mix of anger and confusion in “The Right Girl,” Petkoff was an absolute hoot in Buddy’s signature piece, the Durante-style “God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” Moniz didn’t completely solve how to create a plain vanilla character without seeming bland herself, but she lit up the place with her torch song number, “Losing My Mind.”

An impressive cast of supporting women, representing various decades of once-beautiful girls, formed the thick tapestry of character roles against which the central story develop. Here is where Chicago’s arresting collection of veteran talent played its own hand. You don’t want to offer famous Sondheim numbers like “Ah! Paris!,” “Broadway Baby,” “Who’s That Woman?” and “I’m Still Here” without relying on the sophisticated likes of Kathy Taylor, Marilynn Bogetich, Nancy Voigts and Hollis Resnik to watch your back. They were brilliant.

Photo credits and captions: Home page: Jen Donohoo as a lavishly dressed showgirl. Top: Brent Barrett as Ben in “Live, Laugh, Love.” Top right: Donohoo in a costume close-up. Middle: Caroline O’Connor as Phyllis in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” with dancers Rhett Guter and Julius C. Carter. Bottom: Robert Petkoff as Buddy in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” otherwise known as “Buddy’s Blues,” with L.R. Davidson (left) as Young Sally and Amanda Tanguay as Margie.  (Photos by Liz Lauren.)

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