In his excellent, must-read book Finishing The Hat, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim explained that the original idea for his 1971 musical Follies was to write a murder mystery. All characters had one reason or another to bump a co-character off, so why not make the whole thing a who-done-it? That’s the shape the show was going to take, except for one problem; it didn’t work. Once the script was formed, a read-through proved that the plot got in the way, which is why the show we know today is without plot. It’s driven solely by character. At the sparkling new Theater Works production of Follies in Peoria there is a cast list of 36 performers. With that many characters airing their differences and problems, who needs plot?
Follies is about a reunion. A fast eroding Broadway theatre that was once home to the famous Weismann Follies is about to be demolished. On the eve of the demolition, elderly Dimitri Weismann (Marty Berger), the Zeigfeld of his time, has invited all surviving Weismann performers, some of whom have never returned to the stage since the show’s closure, to gather for drinks and to reminisce for one last time before the demolition ball begins its work.
Weismann’s Follies was a musical revue that ran on Broadway between the two wars. Because the Sondheim musical takes place in ’71 there can be no one under fifty returning for the final reunion, which is also why the show has to be time specific; a period piece. Like the idea for that murder/mystery, an update to the present could never work; characters would have now passed away, something that has actually occurred with several of the original cast members who opened in Follies at the Winter Garden Theatre in ’71 for whom the show and their parts were tailored. Today, in order for Follies to make sense, it has to remain at the beginning of that decade.
Among the many characters, the show centers principally on two unhappily married couples, Ben and Phyliss (Rusty Ferracane and Shari Watts) and Buddy and Sally (Scott Hyder and Beth Anne Johnson). Even though the couples haven’t seen each other for years, they share history, and it’s their past that was so full of hope for the future that’s explored, and it comes with devastating results. History and feelings repeat themselves, and not altogether for the best.
From time to time there’s a moment in a Broadway show when show-stopping history is made. Remember Jennifer Holliday’s And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going in Dreamgirls? Maybe you recall Robert Preston’s Trouble in The Music Man or Zero Mostel’s If I Were A Richman from Fiddler On the Roof. At their conclusion the applause was so thunderous, the roof was in danger of collapsing. In Follies there isn’t just one of those great moments, there are several. As a performer, being given the opportunity for a solo in Sondheim’s musical is like being handed a gift. What you do with it is up to you. In this new production now running at Theater Works until March 15 you sense the cast are only too aware, and under director Philip Fazio’s guidance, they run with it.
Carlotta’s I’m Still Here, as performed by Kelli James, is the sensational crowd-pleaser you want it to be. When Beth Ann Johnson performs Losing My Mind, the song’s poignancy is like a stab to the heart. Johnson also has the gift of a second show-stopper. Her rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes, a song that is pure Sondheim, is simply perfect. Even compared to classic recordings of the song performed in the past by Broadway elite, when backed by Jonathan Tunick’s outstanding orchestration, Johnson’s performance is exceptional and can safely stand among them. Those three moments alone are enough to secure a standing ovation, but with a production such as this, crammed with theatrical treats throughout, Follies constantly surprises by continuing to deliver so much more. Witness Shari Watts perform Could I Leave You and know that you’re watching something special.
Theater Works has this time pulled out all the stops. The rarely performed Sondheim musical with a terrific script full of great dialog from author James Goldman is fleshed out on the Peoria stage against an effective and somewhat ghostly atmospheric backdrop of a crumbling theatre. All the details illustrating the time, place and setting are there, from Tamara Treat’s dazzling costumes to Jean Tanton’s period hair design, while Misha Shields’ energetic choreography bursts with imagination – characters interlock with their younger selves – and excitement, particularly in The Story of Lucy and Jessie where the urge to grab your own top hat and cane and join the male ensemble up on stage may prove for some too hard to restrain.
Follies is not necessarily for everyone. Audience members with only a mild interest in theatre may find the subject matter of little interest – those who often refer to what they’re seeing as “…just a play” should steer clear – plus without a traditional plot to propel things forward, the break for Intermission feels oddly anti-climactic, which explains why several productions have often ran their two hour plus presentation without one, but make no mistake; this Theater Works version truly is something special; an unexpected treat that can’t fail to impress.
Follies is a gift not only to the performers who here are given the opportunity to excel, which they do, but also to us, the audience, who, until March 15 at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, are given the opportunity to watch them.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the Theater Works website.