‘Follies’ At The Repertory Theatre Of St. Louis: Magical, Majestic, Magnificent

 In Culture, Feature

“Follies” is a huge, splashy and ultimately romantic musical by Stephen Sondheim, but it’s so seldom produced that the vast majority of Americans have never seen it.

Maybe it was just too technically demanding to become part of the standard fare of modern American musicals—and perhaps it was even too demanding for audiences of 1971, as two former glamor girls and their husbands try to correct a lot of romantic mistakes from the past the night before their old theater is torn down.

But now, 45 years later in St. Louis, Rob Ruggiero directs this highly complex show with (seemingly) perfect ease. And Ralph Perkins handles the choreography, where the ghosts of performers from the 1920s perform alongside their present-day selves.
(Mr. Sondheim wrote the songs, half of which are silly and nostalgic, while the other half are brilliantly introspective. The book, with a hundred onion-leaf layers, is by James Goldman, who wrote “The Lion In Winter.”)

This new production is perfectly marvelous, with outstanding performances all around. Loud roars of approval exploded after several big numbers in the Rep’s 50th Season opener: as a gaggle of older “Follies” gals revived clever routines from younger days, one last time, often with strange new meaning. (There are plenty of young people on stage too, usually in a parallel universe.)

“Who’s That Woman” is powerfully led by E. Faye Butler, in a riot of Busby Berkeley magic; and a Zigfieldian sampler of tunes, culminating with Zoe Vonder Haar’s rendition of “Broadway Baby,” easily hits the bull’s eye.

Other great moments include Christiane Noll’s majestic torch song, “Losing My Mind,” and Carol Skarimbas’ “One More Kiss,” (performed “with” her much younger self, Julie Hanson), and Emily Skinner’s wickedly playful “Leave You.”

Ms. Skinner is waspish and wounded as Phyllis, and Ms. Noll, loving and (mostly) kind as her old flat-mate Sally. Bradley Dean (as Ben) is excellent, especially in his subtly devastating breakdown near the end. He and Ms. Skinner make for the ideal Manhattan socialites, at a crucial turning point.

And Adam Heller (as Sally’s husband Buddy) takes one of a half-dozen near impossible Sondheim tunes and makes it equally fine drama, in the guise of pastiche comedy. It’s all fresh and raw and astringent, when it’s not bawdy and gaudy and delirious. On the sly, it’s all about how love changes over time, and how very rough those changes can feel.

But in the end, Follies becomes things no other musical can—a theatrical Stonehenge, a cauldron at the witching hour, a forbidden ark we cannot help staring into. It conjures up memories both ecstatic and wretched, with highs much higher, and lows so much lower.

“Follies” is a hit at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, through Oct. 2.

Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

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