Although I love all theater, I have a soft, melty, mushy spot for musical theater (I was once memorably harangued by a neighbor in the hi-rise I used to live in for singing showtunes at night inside my apartment and disturbing her evening reality-tv watching. Ha. Whatever. That angry, loveless beatch is probably scouring writeaprisoner.com even as we speak). I find it quite ironic though that my favorite musical of all time isn’t one of the grand, outsized Rogers and Hammerstein classics such as Oklahoma!, or the life- and love-affirming Dreamgirls or the epic, rousing Les Miserables, shows that define what musical theater is for many a theatergoer, but rather Stephen Sondheim’s melancholy, complicated, sometimes sharp-edged, always life-like classic Follies. Although ostensibly the story of a reunion of former showgirls, their theater impresario, and the men they love the night before their old theater was to be demolished, Follies cuts deep by delving into themes around regretful choices, unhappy relationships, failed aspirations, and the loss-tinged fatigue of living and aging. For me, it’s the one musical that should and could stand beside the best of Harold Pinter or Edward Albee, instead of, well, the best of musical theater. Follies is profound, impactful, disturbing. It is the one Sondheim show, though, that is often talked about in legendary, hushed tones since few have really seen it in live performance. Unfortunately, when it is produced, such as the last Follies production I saw, the 2001 Roundabout Theater Broadway revival with Blythe Danner, Treat Williams, Gregory Harrison, and Judith Ivey, it is coated with the froth of musical theater (and in the Roundabout production’s case, a confused froth at that). So I am so thrilled and excited to see Gary Griffin’s marvelous production of Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It is intimate, raw, heartbreaking, entrancing, filled with unexpected interpretations, a show that is truly a Chicago production, not some New York-style rip-off. It is, in my mind, a production that unequivocally demonstrates Follies’ legendary reputation.
With a travel schedule that is, to say the least, brutalizing (anyone want to swap with me on my five-day weekly sojourn to the city of the gateway arch?), it’s been quite a challenge to catch all the fall theater openings. I did manage to go to several over the past couple of weekends, and I talk about three of them below. (Photo: Redtwist’s Elling with Andrew Jessop and Peter Oyloe)