Thursday, September 11, 2008

Follies... finally

Let's face it, as theatre aficionados, we all have them. Those guilty-pleasure cast albums that we spent hours listening to in our bedrooms or basements imagining the sets and costumes and what the hell the story was really about between all those songs. For me, one of the biggest guilty pleasures was Stephen Sondheim's Follies. I can't believe I've lived a life in theatre this long without ever actually seeing a production of the show. However, this desire was finally satiated by Lyric Stage of Boston's consistently uneven, but mostly palatable production running now through October 11.

On the surface, there is a lot to criticize in this production: the proscenium blocking and choreography for a thrust stage, the uneven performances that produce wonderful songs or great acting but rarely both, the unfortunate designs of both costumes and set. If this were a for-profit Broadway show, I would rip these aspects of the production to shreds. But it's not, and what remains in this conscientious regional production is the heart of the show. The story centers on a reunion of faded follies girls upon the destruction of the theatre in which they used to perform. Set in 1971, the demolition of the theatre in favor of a parking lot is culturally symptomatic of urban planning of the time. However, the theme of urban renewal serves as a metaphor for the lives of the characters who compromised their dreams and are forced to live with the repercussions. In pop culture terminology, Follies is the "Golden Girls" of musical theatre. In theatrical parlance, it is a contemplation of the glorification of youth in our industry and an homage to those who have committed to a life in the theatre. The latter are presented with all their war stories and bruises presenting a realistic portrayal of life in the theatre as few shows dare to do.

As I mentioned, this production is largely uneven with the exception of the divas. Kerry Dowling as Stella, Bobbie Steinbach as Carlotta, and Kathy St. George as Solange deliver some of the most heartfelt, honest, and funny performances that you are likely to see on Boston (or the American) stages this year. Leigh Barrett as Sally Durant delivers her usual operatic performance nailing the nuance of every song but faltering in her dramatic work. Her delivery of "In Buddy's Eyes" is truly extraordinary, although, the 2nd act show-stopper "Losing My Mind" could have been taken up a step or two to accommodate her vocal range. Likewise, Maryann Zschau delivers a mostly solid comedic performance and simply nails "Could I Leave You," but leaves much to be desired in many of the dramatic scenes.

For the men, Peter Carey delivers a reasonably strong performance from the loosely drawn character of Buddy. The casting of Larry Daggett as Ben Stone is the single biggest mistake of the production. His acting, singing, and presence were simply soap operatic, unfit, and unskilled for this otherwise sufficient cast. Although, the older actors certainly earned their deserved place in the spotlight with this show many of the younger cast members also deserve mention such as Phil Crumrine as the younger Buddy, Aimee Doherty as young Stella, and April Pressel whose glorious soprano delivering "One More Kiss" is a highlight of the evening.

The choice to present Follies in the difficult Lyric Stage space was either an inspired or hubris decision of artistic director Spiro Veloudos, who is also director of this show. In terms of space and story, I can't say that Follies succeeds. However, he has managed to cast a significant number of top-notch talent who rarely have the opportunity to perform such luscious characters and music on the stage. I think the production is best summed up by the production number "Mirror, Mirror" which includes tap choreography by Ilyse Robbins and all of the Follies women dancing in step with the Follies girls. This magical number brings together the heart, the energy, and the sheer love of performance that is so rare in professional productions. With all the criticisms one could attribute to the performance, this number brings out the sheer joy of performing that brings us all to the theatre. In an age when theatres and Americans are financially struggling, Follies delivers a potent message sealed in a package of frivolity and amusement that is likely to please both the theatre snobs and the populace.

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