Friday, October 14, 2011

Losing My Mind Over "Follies" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

At first blush, "Follies" is a strange fit for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman confection is not, after all, Shakespeare. But director Gary Griffin (who also happens to be the Associate Artistic Director at Chicago Shakes) has made something of a cottage industry of directing Sondheim shows there, successfully staging "Sunday in the Park with George," "Passion," and a very well-received "Pacific Overtures" (that ended up winning a pot of Olivier Awards in London's West End) in the upstairs black box theater and "A Little Night Music" downstairs in the 500-seat Courtyard Theater.

These "Follies" are supposed to be set in 1971, in a huge, decaying Broadway theater during a party held by impresario Dimitri Weismann (very much in the Florenz Ziegfeld mold) to celebrate and say goodbye to the theater, which is set to be torn down, and to reunite the former Follies girls who sang and danced there over the years. So we expect to see the interior of a specific kind of early 20th century theater, like, perhaps, the Winter Garden or the New Amsterdam, where Ziegfeld actually produced his Follies. The lovely Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, with its thrust stage and gallery seating, is definitely not that kind of venue.

So we know from the get-go that we will be seeing a more intimate "Follies." Scaling down the number of Follies girls and the dance numbers to fit on a small stage? Not so nifty. But if the trade-off is a chance to experience all the beauty and pain of Sondheim's amazing "Follies" songs close up, I'll take that bargain every time.

I am not, as it happens, unbiased or dispassionate when it comes to "Follies." I love this show. You could do a production with five-year-olds tap-dancing through "Too Many Mornings" and I would still be choked up from the overture through the finale. Sondheim's haunting, emotional score matched with Goldman's story of youthful promise, middle-aged regret, dashed dreams and misplaced passion goes straight to my heart.

Still, even if I force myself to get critical, there's a lot to love about the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production. For one thing, it sounds beautiful, with a 12-piece orchestra on risers behind the proscenium and visible throughout most of the show. All of the voices in the cast are terrific, giving Sondheim's magnificent score everything it deserves. And most of the casting is dead-on, from Mike Nussbaum, adorable and irreverent as Mr. Weismann himself, to Bill Chamberlain and his sterling tenor giving us a delightful "Beautiful Girls," Marilynn Bogetich bringing down the house as Hattie, she of the tired feet pounding 42nd Street in "Broadway Baby," Nancy Voigts bringing it down again as Stella, who leads the ladies in the Mirror Dance -- AKA "Who's That Woman?" -- and Chicago favorite Hollis Resnik, showing us the elegance and the steely-eyed tenacity in Carlotta Campion, once a sloe-eyed vamp on the big screen but now reduced to TV, who smashes the house to smithereens when she belts out "I'm Still Here."

I also liked Griffin's use of one special Follies ghost, a beautiful apparition who drifts through the theater as a constant reminder of the past, played by Jen Donohoo, performing half of a waltz opposite one leading man and stopping the other one dead in his path. There are other ghosts on stage, but Donohoo's Showgirl leads the way.

Those are your supporting players, creating a vision of Follies numbers of the past, while in the foreground we have Sally, once a flaky, fun chorus girl who ate Baby Ruths for breakfast, now a fading housewife in Phoenix; Phyllis, her old roommate, who has honed off all her rough edges in order to be a polished and sophisticated political wife; Ben, the promising law student turned big-time politico who married Phyllis but still remembers his fling with Sally; and Buddy, Ben's nice guy pal back in the old days, now married to Sally, trying in vain to keep them both sane while spending most of his time on the road as a traveling salesman. There are two sets of this quartet, since we see current Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy as well as their younger counterparts who fell into all the heartache in the first place.

Among the older quartet, Susan Moniz is quite wonderful as Sally, the one who has never gotten past the love affair she once had. Moniz looks cute and youthful, even as the cracks in her psyche start to show, with the right "Twinkle in her eye, hot off the press, strictly a mess" demeanor when she enters, and a devastating "Losing My Mind" when the time comes.

I also liked Robert Petkoff's Buddy quite a bit. Petkoff pulls off the singing, dancing, self-loathing and inner turmoil in "Buddy's Blues," with a nifty Jimmy Durante/Groucho vibe that feels energetic and fresh.

Caroline O'Connor, who looks a bit like Betty Boop, seems a strange choice for Phyllis, although I could certainly understand why she was cast when we got to her big second-act number. O'Connor can dance. And then some. Apparently Griffin envisioned "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" as a boffo jazzhands-and-muscled-chorus-boys-in-bowler-hats number right out of "Chicago," and O'Connor delivers that with sizzle and snap. And jazz hands. But Phyllis is supposed to have gone from Jessica Simpson to Princess Grace, to have been a happy, unformed young thing who worked her butt off to turn herself into the impossibly posh, chilly woman who collects Braques and Chagalls and routinely arranges dinners for ten elderly men from the U.N. With the wrong hair, the wrong dress, a jazz dancer's posture and a strangely stilted delivery, O'Connor never reads as Phyllis to me.

Brent Barrett certainly looks handsome and debonair enough for Ben, the center of the love quadrangle, and his voice is fabulous, although there are times when he seems to be aiming for the second balcony of a large theater rather than the tenth row of this Courtyard. He is also hampered by a number right out of "Chicago," when his "Live, Laugh, Love" turns into Billy Flynn's "All I Care About," complete with white tie and tails and fan-dancers.

Individually, the younger quartet shows off good voices and character choices, but none of them match up well with their older selves. By that, I mean they don't resemble Barrett, Moniz, O'Connor or Petkoff at all, in terms of size, hair color, or even type. That's a bit unsettling.

Still, the joy of seeing Nussbaum, Bogetich, Voigts and Resnik strut their stuff is more than enough to make this a fabulous "Follies" experience, and Moniz may be my new favorite Sally. Oh, who am I kidding? The first notes of the overture are enough to get me there.

The Chicago Shakespeare production has a limited run, with quite a few sell-outs. So get your tickets now if you haven't already. To my way of thinking, there is never enough of "Follies."


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Performances through November 13

Director: Gary Griffin
Musical Director: Brad Haak
Choreographer: Alex Sanchez
Scenic Designer: Kevin Depinet
Costume Designer: Virgil C. Johnson
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder
Sound Designers: Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli
Wig and Make-up Designer: Melissa Veal

Cast includes: Susan Moniz, Caroline O'Connor, Brent Barrett, Robert Petkoff, L.R. Davidson, Rachel Cantor, Andrew Keltz, Adrian Aguilar, Mike Nussbaum, Jen Donohoo, Bill Chamberlain, Marilynn Bogetich, Kathy Taylor, Dennis Kelly, Ami Silvestre, Nancy Voigts, David Elliott, Hollis Resnik, Linda Stephens, Kari Sorenson, Christina Myers, Amanda Tanguay, Amanda Kroiss, Rhett Guter, Julius C. Carter, Devin Archer, Jenny Guse, Nate Lewellyn, Tanner Smale.

Running time: 2:30, including one 15-minute intermission

Note: If you'd like a video peek at this "Follies," check out this page from the online Chicago Tribune.


  1. Nicely said, Julie. I think this must have as challenging for you to write as for me to give my thoughts about "Arcadia." (And I would have felt "Follies" to be the same challenge.) How does one get down on paper the essence of an experience that gets at one's innards in this mysterious, compelling way? You did it.

  2. "Arcadia" is the same for me, too, Jon. These mysterious, irresistible theatrical experiences are both the best and the worst. The best to breathe in with anticipation and excitement, but the worst to try to explain afterwards. "Follies" flips all my switches. That's all I've got.