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.
Griffin’s achievement begins with staging the show on the thrust stage of Chicago Shakespeare instead of behind the proscenium arch, with the actors’ right smack in the audience’s face. This staging gives the play an immediacy and discomfiting voyeurism that are more similar to seeing, say, a Tracy Letts play in a storefront than seeing a musical in a big Broadway house. Griffin’s vision is stunning – he gives the large Courtyard theater an intimacy that for me it has never had. The staging lends itself to a more devastating effect for the already ache-filled “Losing My Mind”, but admittedly it poses some problems for the larger-scale ambitions of “Who’s That Woman” in which the energetic choreography of Alex Sanchez for the showgirls and the ghosts of their younger selves is drowned in clunky, crowded blocking.
Griffin’s brilliance, though, is most apparent in the unexpected interpretations of Sondheim’s characters and songs by a terrific, unforgettable cast. Susan Moniz’s Sally, the unhappy housewife from Phoenix, is indelible: sad but grasping, sympathetic yet delusional, and truly believable as someone sinking into manic depression in which she will not be able to recover from. And I love, love the way she performs “Losing My Mind”, a perfect song about unbearable loneliness: quiet and soft yet with layers that, if you pay attention closely enough, are frightening. It’s an amazingly nuanced performance.
Australian actress Caroline O’Connor has the most difficult, complicated role – Phyliss, the showgirl turned socialite who finds out that a life of wealth and luxury is a life full of trade-offs and betrayals. And O’Connor is stunning – ferocious, wounded, acerbic, heartbroken. Her sharp corners and hard edges sometimes peak underneath her couture dress, but so does her resignation and world-weariness (ably complemented by a smoke-and-whiskey-scarred throaty voice). It’s a surprising interpretation since Phyliss is often played by patrician, otherworldly actors (Lee Remick, Blythe Danner, Donna Murphy, and Jan Maxwell in the current Broadway revival) whose innate delicacy underscores all the hurt and humiliation. O’Connor isn’t delicate at all- and she’s taking prisoners, but that doesn’t diminish the heartache of her loveless marriage. She performs “Could I Leave You”, truly one of the “best of the best” Sondheim songs, imho, not as a complicated mix of recriminations against and pleading with her husband Ben, as other Phylisses do, but as a cool, calculated accounting of what she is owed. And she is owed bigtime. O’Connor nails this point down with a loud, jaw-dropping bang. Even more jaw-dropping for me is her passionate, demanding take on “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”, with Sanchez’s choreography sexy-angry in the best way possible. It’s a song I’m not particularly enamored of, but in O’Connor’s unforgettable rendition, I just can’t get the song, and the whole scene, out of my mind.
I can rapturously go on and on about O’Connor’s astounding, profoundly moving Phyliss but Griffin’s cast deliver unexpected interpretations of the other famous Sondheim songs. The exceptional Marilyn Bogetich performs “Broadway Baby” not as some warm, nostalgic ode to hard work and ambition, as it’s usually performed, but rather as an angry, hostile, furiously regretful aria about failure and not being good enough. Then there’s Hollis Resnick, as Carlotta, the showgirl who ended up with a career in movies and television. She is dazzling beyond superlatives. Her big number is “I’m Still Here”, that most famous anthem of survival and longevity, usually performed in a blowsy, jaded, bombastically diva-esque manner (check out Polly Bergen’s and Elaine Paige’s versions in the 2001 and 2011 Broadway revivals respectively on YouTube). Resnick performs it in a riveting, unexpected way – slowly building on the tension, performing portions of the song as if she’s in self-assured conversation with the audience, and ending with confidence and bravado. Resnick’s Carlotta survived, is still here, because she knows how to adapt and move on, shrug off the failures and obstacles, pick herself up by the bootstraps and dust herself off, qualities that none of the other Follies girls seem to have. This gal is battle-scarred, but she ain’t showing it to anyone. And that’s why she sticks around. Resnick creates a fascinating character study. She is, to put it plainly, just brilliant.
I have some minor quibbles with the production: Ben Stone’s second act number “Live, Laugh, Love” is staged, choreographed, and performed (by the otherwise excellent Brent Barrett) too similarly to Chicago’s “Razzle Dazzle”, which is distracting. I also do not think Young Phyliss (Rachel Cantor) and Young Sally (L.R. Davidson) are fully-fleshed out and differentiated enough in performance (I keep on trying to figure out who’s who by height since Davidson is shorter than Cantor). But these are minor quibbles indeed in a production that is fresh, insightful, and dare I say it, close to being definitive.
This Follies is unmissable. It runs till November 8 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave.