Book by James Goldman
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
Featuring Sally Moniz, Caroline O’Connor, Hollis Resnik
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
October 4, 2011 — November 13, 2011
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 8, 2011

Hollis Resnik as Carlotta. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The Chicago Way*, part one.  On this evening I see theatre in one of my many home bases from the past several decades.  In my itinerant life’s series of home towns, some more fully embraced than others, Chicago is among my favorites.  A familiar haunt filled with beloved people, places, images, and theatrical experiences and possibilities. A known segment of my personal map of the world.  And this night I have a ticket to see a heralded Chicago production during its final week extension that provides a kind of resonant conversation with a much heralded production that traveled from the Kennedy Center to the Marquis Theatre on Broadway I saw during its first few weeks of previews.  A Chicago-based blogger who has seen both shows has done his version of The Great Follies Smack Down of 2011, and while I am greatly amused by this essay, such point by point comparisons aren’t my style.  What I’ll attempt here is to live in the world of the Chicago production, draw from the powerful and often dramatically contrasting examples provided by the Broadway production, and see where we stand at the end of the exercise.

So I didn’t see the original Broadway production in 1971, but my first visit to then exotic (to my preteen Midwestern self) Broadway included the original production of A Little Night Music in 1973.  Follies I knew only from the cast recording and concert versions and songs in isolation as revered portions of set lists and stories from those who had been there.  Ted Chapin‘s 2003 tome  Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies about his student involvement as an observer and chronicler of the musical’s evolution has been in my library since it was first published. This history enchants the dramaturg and theatre geek in me with believable first person prose and deeply observed developmental detail of the stars and the creators working and playing and arguing and making theatre magic that continues to haunt or aggravate those who were there, to this day.  With background and foreground and individual songs-as-stories I developed knowledge of the set list but had not, until August of this year, seen the songs assembled on stage, seen characters developed with dialogue, seen the full arc of story lines. Follies on stage in August 2011 in previews on Broadway, and in November 2011 in a final extended week in Chicago Follies. And I’m still here.

The Shakespeare Theater main stage space is thrust, with audience on three sides, several tiers of narrow balconies surrounding the action, and an upstage proscenium hiding behind a scrim curtain the set of musicians who remain onstage throughout both acts and intermission — tuning, playing, animating the action.  (Reviewers comment on the fact that the Broadway orchestra is 20 plus while the Chicago team features 12 multi-talented performers, including the piano playing Maestra, and a playbill credit for “orchestral reductions” by David Siegel.  The musical dimensions fit each production — enough said by me.)  Raw wood, faded “The Weisman Theatre” sign on the scrim curtain that is soon back-lit and remains so throughout the action, outlining the musicians.  Brick exposed in the theatre arch wall is augmented by the warm wood and gentle house lighting of this intimate yet tall and flexible space.  Ladders are suspended, akimbo, in front of the brick proscenium, lettering is faded, some work lights are visible, and a ghost light beckons us before action commences. Our context for an intimate, enveloping, human scale, intelligently interactive Follies is established. And magic is made.

The action begins and ends with a single white-clad statuesque feather-headressed 1920s Weisman ghost showgirl (Jen Donohoo) entering the playing area from the audience, exploring the space. (She later initiates the dream-nightmare follies sequence by being lowered from the ceiling.)  From the first moment we are alerted: realism and fantasy-memory will freely merge in this storytelling. Once other characters enter we see that the color palate for this production (costumes by Virgil C. Johnson, lighting by Christine Binder, sets by Kevin Depinet) is M-G-M musical rather than the Warner Brothers black and white elegant but noiry black-clad ghost show girl effects of the Broadway production. A theatre with a history (and ghosts and lives lived) is about to be destroyed, and Dimitri Weismann (adorable, delectable local treasure Mike Nussbaum) has convened the troops from across the years to pay homage to the theatre and to each other and to the magic they created in the Weismann productions during the years between the World Wars. We’re in 1971, the year of the original production of this work, and it has been 30 years since the last show.  For the First Act and into the beginning of the Second, our setting is the reunion as cocktail party — people telling tales, re-enacting old routines, catching up, showing off, acting out.

Two couples among the party attendees have a particularly deep and fraught history. Showgirl Sally (Susan Moniz) had a youthful affair with suave and business-directed matinée idol looker Ben (Brent Stone) who also had eyes for eager-to-please and socially aspiring Sally roommate Phyllis (Caroline O’Connor). Ben marries Phyllis, Sally marries another stage-door Johnny Buddy (Robert Petkoff), yet never quite recovers from this early rejection. Would her life has been different with Ben?  Was he always and forever the man that got away? If she saw him one more time would he reach for her and solve all her lurking feelings of insecurity? And there we have it — dreams relived, revisited, twisted into nightmares in the course of a dreamlike presentation Follies sequence deep in the second act.

Within that basic structure, we have duets, ensemble pieces, solo turns, star turns, stop the show moments aplenty. Moniz’s Sally has retained her dancer’s body, a gentle affect, a suburban wife and mother’s fluffy fancy dress, and an edge of crazy that doesn’t show its face until the final tune of the first act — “Too Many Mornings” — Sally and Ben bemoaning waking up too many times with the wrong person — which for Ben means anyone other than the one he’s with and for Sally means anyone other than Ben. She is vulnerable, he is oblivious but is willing to use her one more time. O’Connor’s Phyllis is all quip and taut tiny dancer’s body (rather than statuesque show girl as this part has often been played). She gets many of the show’s best quip-y lines (‘Ben and I don’t do things anymore, we say them”) and creates more out of the otherwise often bizarre and dissonant “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” through some incredible dancing than I’ve ever seen or heard of before. Sally and “Losing My Mind” is transporting and human scale and aching and not presentational — you feel with her this cry.

The standout performance of this show is the layered, nuanced, starting from a conversation downstage left (lucky me, at my performance, my corner of the playing space) with the convening impressario Dimitri Weismann about the course of her career, the stop-the-show, build slow from a conversation out of strength not confusion — “I’m Still Here” by our Carlotta, our survivor, our beauty, our star, our Hollis Resnik. The original Carlotta was, of course, Yvonne DeCarlo, who at the time of Follies had indeed been a movie star and had made a fortune in cheesy television (“The Munsters”). Her character’s references to an ongoing career of a certain type, of becoming camp, of surviving, of continuing in the business, had a certain resonance in 1971. Through the years the use of this tune has played variations on this theme, with actors with histories playing characters who sing this song, providing layers in that manner. Resnik begins by telling her tale to someone who hasn’t heard the details after knowing her as a young girl: ‘Good times and bum times / I’ve had ’em all and my dear / I’m still here”. She continues to deliver in this conversational mode to her single audience, her conversational partner, eventually taking flight (and taking her place center stage), knocking the song out of the park. Telling the story of the song rather than belting the outlines.  It is a tour de force and a delight.

The production’s extended engagement concludes this weekend, but the memory of its charms will endure.  there are many of us who have seen both the Chicago and New York versions of 2011, which only enhance its charms, its power, its resonance in the history of American musical theatre.  Mr. Sondheim himself attended a performance this past weekend and, from my conversation with a cast member after a subsequent performance, reported he was pleased.  As he should be.  One of the most astounding evenings I have spent in the theatre. In Chicago or anywhere.

* What do I mean here by The Chicago Way you ask? No, I’m not talking about bloviating politicians or allusions to graft-infested shenanigans. I refer to a phrase offered by my young pal Kristin Idaszak, playwright and dramaturg and director, who I did not see in person but spoke to by phone during this visit. I mused with pleasure and passion about Follies and Clybourne Park (both of which I have seen in other productions in other cities) and many of the things that made me rhapsodize about these Chicago productions — specific nuances, production choices, including preference for ensemble rather than showboating, and specificity and clarity and intensity with purpose. Kristin listened to me and quietly said: “that’s the Chicago way”. We had all of 10 minutes together as a kind of brief debrief and she nails it in an understood code. The Chicago Way.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 11, 2011)

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