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Chicago by John Olson

Follies
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Follies
Brent Barrett and Susan Moniz
2011 is the year of Follies, with the Kennedy Center's production of the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman classic transferring to Broadway amidst critical acclaim and near sellout houses. In any year, though, Gary Griffin's new staging of Follies for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater should be considered a major production of the piece. With its impeccable musical performances (from the leads in the cast down to the harp in the orchestra), crystal-clear takes on the lead characters, snappy choreography, spectacular costumes, and a deceptively complex (if that's the opposite of deceptively simple) scenic design, the musical's emotional dramatic punch and legendary score are delivered with a skill and commitment to the material that ought to win it many new fans. Though the cast is not loaded with the sorts of international musical theater celebrities the current Broadway revival boasts, Griffin has assembled a group of performers from Broadway, London and Chicago who are perfectly suited to their roles, even if sometimes in surprising ways.

Griffin's Phyllis Stone is British actress Caroline O'Connor, known in London's West End for such earthy and rugged roles as Chicago's Velma Kelly and On the Town's Hildy Esterhazy, and recently, Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett in Paris. While audiences may have commonly seen Phyllis as an icy society matron, O'Connor's take gives the character a different angle. Together with Rachel Cantor's portrayal of Young Phyllis, we see the rather lower-class girl who has made good on her promise to educate herself and become acceptable in the upper-class world to which her husband Ben aspired. In O'Connor's performance, there are still traces of that background in the 51-year-old Phyllis—a characterization which is entirely supported by the text and providing a tension which makes her a much more intriguing figure. It also sets her up to deliver a "Could I Leave You?" that is not only wicked, but wickedly funny. She gets more laughs from that song than one might think possible, but then O'Connor shows her considerable dancing skills in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," performed as something of an homage to O'Connor's work in Chicago in London and on Broadway. The sprightly choreography is by Alex Sanchez, a former Broadway dancer who's been assembling a list of impressive regional credits and looks to be headed for big things.

Ben is played by Broadway's Brent Barrett, who has every bit of the regal bearing, looks and charisma one would expect from a member of the power elite. Barrett's voice is booming and pompous—there's no doubt about the oversized ego of the man and, though perhaps Barrett takes that arrogance a little farther than he might, bordering on parody at times, he gives Ben the presence we need to see to understand why people are so drawn to him. Add to that the benefits of Barrett's splendid baritone and you get some of the best readings of "The Road You Didn't Take" and "Too Many Mornings" imaginable. He's a dapper song & dance man in the finale "Life, Laugh, Love," another homage to Chicago suggestive of Billy Flynn's "All I Care About is Love," surrounded by fan dancers, appropriately enough given the number of times Barrett has played Flynn.

The "plain" couple, Sally and Buddy, are played with sensitivity by Susan Moniz and Robert Petkoff. Moniz gives Sally a naiveté and sweetness that gently but believably slips into self-delusion when she believes Ben wants to marry her, and just as convincingly slips back into reality when she acknowledges the truth about Ben. Moniz's singing voice is a dream—clear and expressive, giving wonderfully touching interpretations of "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind." Petkoff is just as believable as Buddy—a "regular" guy, not lower-class or crude. Lonely, but still wanting to make his marriage work, his "The Right Girl" turns into a powerful "angry dance" that gives us exceptional insight into the man's psyche.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, led by Chicago's Hollis Resnik as Carlotta. Her "I'm Still Here" is brassy and defiant, without a hint of self-pity. We don't doubt for a minute that she's still having a great time in life, nor that she could snag a 27-year boy friend. The venerable and revered Chicago character actor Mike Nussbaum is a perfect, spry Dimitri Weismann. Nancy Voights is a gregarious Stella Deems, getting the gang together for one last tap dance of "Who's That Woman," and perfectly paired with David Elliott as her decidedly unglamorous husband Max.

Chicago Shakespeare's Courtyard Theater, inspired by the Globe Theater and updated with warm wood tones, is not the first venue one would consider for Follies, and this is no environmental production. Scenic designer Kevin Depinet has created a false proscenium for the theater's upstage area, with a falling catwalk above it. That's all we need to take us into the world of the about-to-be-demolished Weismann Theater. The design is simple, but it achieves the desired effect. The 12–piece orchestra, which sounds terrific and much larger in David Siegel's reduction of the Jonathan Tunick orchestrations, is visible on stage. The only action occurring within the proscenium is the entrance of the women in "Beautiful Girls." The remainder of the action is played on the apron and the thrust stage. When the Loveland sequence begins, a dancer is lowered onto the thrust and an elaborate flat covers the false, decaying proscenium arch, giving the feeling of a very grand old theater instead.

The costumes by Virgil C. Johnson seem to suffer from no lack of budget, with smart cocktail wear for the party scenes (appropriately less smart for the less affluent characters), period clothing for the young couples, and quite spectacular gowns for the showgirls. Christine Binder's lighting design aids the shifts from present day to memory and fantasy, and includes a particularly effective bit in which the stage door is opened at the end of the show, revealing daylight.

Griffin's production throughout has the feeling of being elaborate and spectacular, but on reflection, after the show has ended, it becomes apparent that he's done much with somewhat fewer resources than are generally assumed to be necessary to mount this show. He has a cast of 29—large by most standards, but smaller than the 38 now performing it on Broadway. The strength of the subtle, nuanced performances and above all the masterful interpretation of the Sondheim score under the musical direction of Brad Haak (and heard perfectly thanks to the clarity of the sound design by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli) put the focus on the characters, their journeys, and the wonderful songs. This is a Follies not to be missed.

Follies has been extended and will run through November 13, 2011, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Ticket information is available at www.chicagoshakes.com/Follies, by phone at 312-595-5600 or at the Box Office.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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