The musical is set in 1971 at a reunion of "Weismann Follies" showgirls in the crumbling New York theatre where their show closed 30 years before. The building is about to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. Our four main characters are two couples who find their marriages crumbling as well, and their lives are on the brink of being torn apart. They are all unhappy in their marriages, with Sally still in love with Ben, the husband of her follies roommate Phyllis. The other supporting characters were "Weissman girls" during the various years the Follies ran.
The score is comprised of standard musical theatre style songs as well as follies songs the women perform as they did when they were showgirls. The show exhibits a somewhat dreamlike state, always referring to the choices one makes that affect the future, and dealing with unfortunate truths from the past. The beautiful theatrical conceit used to represent the past is to have actors portray younger versions, or ghosts, of the follies girls as well as the two main couples. Thus, a quartet for the main couples, "The Girls Upstairs," becomes an octet when the four younger versions of their characters appear and join in. A solo for one of the Weissman girls shows her now at 60 as well as in the past at 20, thus becoming a duet. The last section of the musical finds the four leads performing follies-like numbers that represent the real inner feelings of each character, culminating in a frenzy that then dissolves back into reality and the realistic yet haunting ending.
This is a show that makes you seriously think about "the road you didn't take." Follies is a musical that must be viewed and perceived differently depending on the age of the audience member, as anyone under 30 who hasn't had to face some of the questions the main characters ask wouldn't clearly understand the point of the story. The ghosts conjure up memories for the four leads, some which they clearly wish they could forget. The memories also make the couples question the choices they made, knowing that, had they made different decisions, their lives wouldn't have turned out the way they did.
While Follies had a decent run of over 500 performances on Broadway back in 1971, it is one of those shows that has been reworked numerous times in hopes of fixing the few flaws. Like Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, the score is rich with beautiful ballads, themes, and comical songs, but just like Merrily, the book isn't quite at the same level of the score, and the characters aren't exactly ones you root for. Sondheim wrote several additional songs for subsequent productions and Goldman has made various changes to the book. The Theater Works production uses the 2011 Broadway revival script.
Beth Anne Johnson is Sally, and she perfectly inhabits her character. Sally's husband Buddy has accused her of being either drunk or crazy, and Johnson's portrayal is a cross between the two, creating a somewhat delusional woman who is holding on to her dreams. Johnson excels in her two big numbers, "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind," providing both with a deep connection and understanding of the personal lyrics. Buddy is a tough character to play, as he loves Sally but knows she is still in love with Ben. Scott Hyder brings a sense of jealousy and shame to the part and pulls off the dramatic and comic moments of the role with ease.
Shari Watts brings a combination of wit, sex, and lavish refinement as Phyllis. While it's a role with many harsh tones, Watts excels in acting the part impeccably, and delivers her two solos, especially "Could I Leave You?," with a nice amount of bite. Rusty Ferracane is Phyllis' husband Ben, and Sondheim has given him several beautiful songs. Ferracane gives "The Road You Didn't Take" a stunning delivery that really brings home the meaning of the song. He also instills a deep sense of pain and regret in the role. Lee Pitts, Joshua Vern, Jacqui Notorio and Brandi Bigley play the younger versions of the four leads and all are quite good.
The supporting cast includes several actresses who get solo songs and witty dialogue. Kelli James delivers a knock out performance of the Sondheim classic "I'm Still Here" and Patti Davis Suarez gives a driving take on "Broadway Baby." Both have Broadway credits and enhance the lyrics of their songs with their vast personal experiences. "Who's That Woman?" is led by big voiced Heather Fallon. Fallon and the other ladies in the cast have a blast with this song, and the choreography by Misha Shields perfectly integrate the actresses with the ghosts of their younger selves in this number. If anyone in the audience didn't realize what all of these younger people were doing wandering around the stage before, this number should make them clearly understand the point of them being there.
Director Phillip Fazio does an exceptional job of incorporating the ghosts seamlessly into the story, but without hitting you over the head with their significance. His use of scrims and shadows to show the younger versions of the characters, as well as having them move throughout the audience, is quite effective. He also directs the dialogue scenes between the four leads so they amount to much more than just couples bickering. And Fazio knows the right way to direct the many showstopping numbers so they have emotional resonance. One example: Notice in "I'm Still Here" how he changes the focus of the song halfway through, from a performance to guests at the party to an introspective internal monologue. Music director Steve Hilderbrand achieves an exceptional sound from the orchestra as well as some lush harmonies and vocals from the cast.
Costume designer Tamara Treat has created some stunning outfits, all set in the early 1970s period, with hair and make-up designers Jean Tanton and Courtney Greger complementing the effect. Daniel Davisson's lighting is also quite good. A little issue I have with this production has to do with the set and how it is used for the more dramatic scenes. Brett Aiken's set perfectly evokes the stage of an expansive theatre whose best days are in the past, but when the partygoers disappear in order for a scene with two of the main characters to play out, you get no sense that they are in a more private area of the theatre; it seems they are still on the stage of this huge theatre. A large scrim is used at one point, but I think small set pieces or additional scrims would be more effective to give the feeling that they are backstage or off in a private corner. Instead, it is as if everyone at the party ran outside for a smoke as they knew someone needed to have a private conversation on the stage of the theatre.
While this is a magical and truly enjoyable evening, there are still some problems with the book, which is more a series of vignettes between the people at the party, and how some of the songs, as great as they are, seem a bit shoe-horned into the show. But this cast, under Fazio's assured direction, really delivers. It took over 40 years for Follies to make it to Phoenix and while the musical and this production may not be completely perfect, the production is well-cast, well-acted, and most likely one of the best productions and best casts that Phoenix will ever get for this show.
Follies runs through March 15th, 2015, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623 815-7930.
Directed by Phillip Fazio*
Cast (in order of appearance):