In February of 1971 Harold Prince produced and directed a musical with score by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman. It received largely mixed to negative reviews, limped along for over a year and lost $685,000 of its $800,000 capitalization.
Who could imagine that, 40 years later, that show would be playing in three major American cities? The show, of course is "Follies," which was revived at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. last June. With solid reviews and a marvelous cast it is enjoying an extended run at the Marquis Theater in New York. Yet another revival has opened in Chicago at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival with a dynamite cast directed by the estimable Gary Griffin.
By chance I was in Chicago to attend the wedding of my youngest cousin, a true closing of the circle, and -- lucky for me -- was able to make room for "Follies." Griffin's production clarifies a lot of what has always made the show problematic.
The word on "Follies" has always been that the weak point is Goldman's book. That's not really the issue.
There have always been two "Follies." There's the follies with a lower case f, a domestic drama about two couples who met while the women were dancers in an annual spectacle that appeared between the world wars. The two couples meet at a reunion of the Weissman Follies casts in 1971, when the New York theater in which they performed is about to be razed. (One of the inspirations for the show is a famous photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the legendary Roxy Theater.)
Which brings us to Follies with an upper case F, a look at a form of lavish, innocent entertainment which had pretty much disappeared by 1971, when the Vietnam War cast its shadow on everything. The two couples meet and relive all the problems their marriages have undergone over the intervening years. But the event itself looks at a kind of lost world, a world of glamor and beauty and high spirits no longer feasible.
Most New York revivals have focused on Follies with an upper case F, casting legendary, sometimes forgotten stars to build a sense of poignance about a spirit that cannot be recaptured. Often the result has been to create a discomfiting aura that makes the show difficult for theater-goers who just want to have a good time (are there any of those any more?)
Maybe there are no aging legendary stars in Chicago. This means that Griffin just chose actors perfect for the parts. The result is a riveting production uninhibited by the usual ambiguities.
Caroline O'Connor, for example, who plays Phyllis, has a wonderful verve that balances her acid temperament. That's why her "Leave You?" has as much humor and wit as it does suppressed anger. Similarly, Susan Moniz, who plays the deeply disturbed Sally, makes it clear that she is holding on for dear life and keeping herself in control. That accentuates the pain and the power of her great, great song "Losing My Mind."
As the stony Benjamin Stone Brent Barrett also has a great elegance and force as he acknowledges his weaknesses. Robert Petkoff has a deeply affecting vulnerability as the bumbling Buddy. Adrian Aguilar is especially strong as the young Ben.
All the "show biz" numbers that constitute the core of the show's entertainment value work splendidly, especially Marilyn Bogitech's "Broadway Baby."
This is not a lavish production, but the lack of splash only strengthens the final 20 minutes in which the marital follies of the two couples are presented in the manner of an old-fashioned "Follies." (This i the first production in which I totally got the super-tricky "Lucy and Jessie.")
Throughout the music is served powerfully, especially in Moniz and Barret's soaring "Too Many Mornings." The orchestra, conducted by Valerie Maze, is masterful. There is also some expert choreography by Alex Sanchez.
The production has been extended to Nov. 14. Chicago is always a great place to visit. This production makes it even moreso.