Highly Recommended It is hard to believe, but Chicago Shakespeare Theater is starting its 25th season and rather than begin with the works of wordsmith William Shakespeare, they have chosen modern-day wordsmith Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” ( book by James Goldman- Lyrics and music by Sondheim). Doing Sondheim at CST at Navy Pier is not unusual. In fact, under the direction of Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin. his works have become a sort of regular. However, unlike the previous productions, this one is not upstairs in the intimate studio theater, but instead on the main stage- the Courtyard stage and after being a witness to the genius of Griffin’s solid direction, this was the perfect move. “Follies” is a show that is “bigger than life” and therefore to work must have a stage that allows lots of movement. This production has not only great staging, but some excellent choreography by Alex Sanchez ( who adds a little “Fosse” touch in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” featuring the adorable Caroline O’Conner with dancers Rhett Guter and Julius C. Carter). This is only one number of this 2 1/2 hours of great music, acting, singing, dancing- in other words- Entertainment that will become one of your favorite memories of musical theater!
Griffin has a true undertanding of Sondheim and his music and has put together a cast that follows his lead. We, the sudience are the fortunate ones as we get to see this piece of work performed as it should be. The story takes place in 1971, some 30 years after the legendary Wismann Follies ended its run and before the theater is torn down for a new parking lot, owner Dimitri Weismann ( the always reliable Mike Nussbaum) ha sinvited the surviving performers back for a festive farewell. It turns out, there are “ghosts” in the building, at least in the minds of those gathered, most of which is their own baggage and the memories that haunt them of the choices they made those many years ago.
Showgirls Sally ( a marvelous performance by Susan Moniz, who like a fine wine matures with age) and the aforementioned Caroline O’Conner as Phyllis, have not seen each other for many years. As it turns out, both have married the stage door johnnies that wooed them in their early “Follies” days, Benjamin Stone ( deftly handled by Brent Barrett) and Buddy Plummer ( Robert Petkoff who handles song and dance with great agility and can act as well). Buddy, now almost divorced from Sally and Benjamin, a diplomat who is married to Phyllis, but just barely. As it turns out, Sally always felt that her man was Benjamin and that one day, he would be hers. Meanwhile Phyllis is wrestling with her life and where it should go. This reunion opens up a lot of wounds for these, our main characters and a lot of memories for the rest of the cast.
Since much of this is in flashbacks, we have a younger set of couples in these roles as well; Young Buddy is handled by Andrew Keltz and young Ben by Adrian Aguilar ( two very sharp young local talents who have risen from ensemble to lead roles in the past few years) and as the younger Sally ( L.R. Davidson) and Phyllis(Rachel Cantor), we have two very talented young ladies. The blending of the couples then and now as interpreted by Griffin is what makes this story so real and lovable. The story is about people and was conceived by Sondheim when he read of an actual Ziegfeld Club reunion and thought this might be a great way to tell a story of “show people” and how their lives can change with just one choice, good or bad!
What makes this production so special is the cast that has been assembled to take on some of these glorious characters. What we have is a “stage of fame” at CST- one of my favorites, Hollis Resnik doing Carlotta ( a powerful rendition of “I’m Still Here”; Marilynn Bogetich doing Hattie Walker( Wait until you hear her “Broadway Baby”); husband and wife duo Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre as The Whitman’s; the glamorous Nancy Voigts as Stella Deems;Kathy Taylor as Solange LaFitte, Jen Donohoo as “The Showgirl” who is in fact the spirit of what was and what can never be as she watches over the festivities and appears from areas one would not anticipate. As I said earlier, Griffin’s “genius” for bringing this production to the stage at CST ( for this run, perhaps we can refer to this as Chicago Sondheim Theater at Navy Pier) is dependent on these fine cast members but also his brilliant ensemble members, his set design (Kevin Depinet),Costumes (Virgil C. Johnson),Sound ( Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath) Lighting ( Christine Binder) and Musical direction by Brad Haak. The orchestra is powerful, yet never overpowering making every word clear to the ear. This is “key” to a Sondheim musical as he uses many tight phrases filled with words and rhymes, so if not familiar with the music, you could miss a lot- this cast makes sure you don’t miss anything. If you are a fan of Sondheim, then you will not want to miss this! If you are not familiar with his work, this may be one of the easiest to begin the journey with as the story is not complicated and the performances are extraordinary. Just as a side note, Griffin and his players have set the bar very high!
Tickets range in price from $55-$75 still a bargain for theater of this quality and can be purchased at the box office ( if you happen to be in the area) by phone at 312-595-5600 or at the website www.chicagoshakes.com
Discounted parking is available at Navy Pier located at 800 East Grand Avenue ( bring your ticket to the theater for validation) 40% off and there are lots of affordable places to dine at the Pier- enjoy! And bring someone you love!