Saturday, October 2, 2010

Theater review: Caldwell's 'Follies' another gift to Sondheim fans

Melissa Minyard.

By Hap Erstein

For the third time in a year,‭ ‬the Caldwell Theatre has put the words and music of Stephen Sondheim onstage,‭ ‬emphasizing his intricate way with a song and his emotionally complex storytelling in its musical concert series.‭

If the Boca Raton company‭’‬s current offering,‭ ‬1971‭’‬s‭ ‬Follies,‭ ‬is not quite up to the delirious level of its‭ ‬Sunday in the Park‭ ‬With George or‭ ‬Into the Woods,‭ ‬perhaps that is because the surprise factor that its performers can learn,‭ ‬stage,‭ ‬rehearse and present these demanding shows in less than a week is starting to wear off.

Or maybe it is the nature of‭ ‬Follies‭ ‬itself.‭ ‬More concept musical than traditional book musical,‭ ‬less than a third of its numbers move the skeletal story along,‭ ‬which may not‭ ‬lend itself as well to the concert format.‭ ‬The score is full of memorable showstoppers,‭ ‬but they are mostly presentational specialty numbers,‭ ‬faux-vintage songs like‭ ‬Broadway Baby,‭ ‬Ah,‭ ‬Paris‭!, ‬or that ultimate torch song,‭ ‬Losing My Mind.

Sondheim-philes would probably go anywhere to hear these tunes sung as well as they are at the Caldwell this weekend,‭ ‬and on that level,‭ ‬you have to deem artistic director Clive Cholerton‭’‬s production a success.‭ ‬But the pared-down staging and lack of scenic touches leads to narrative confusion.‭ ‬It is hard to imagine that someone who had not seen Follies previously would be able to follow the show‭’‬s shifts between the present and the past,‭ ‬between reality and fantasy.‭

The show won seven Tony Awards,‭ ‬but was inexplicably edged out for best musical by Galt MacDermot‭’‬s‭ ‬Two Gentlemen of Verona.‭ ‬It focuses on two former chorus girls of the famed,‭ ‬fictional Weismann Follies,‭ ‬both caught in unsatisfying,‭ ‬empty marriages.‭ ‬Phyllis‭ (‬Laura Hodos‭) ‬is married to foundation head Ben‭ (‬Stephen G.‭ ‬Anthony‭)‬,‭ ‬both bored by their New York social obligations.‭ ‬In contrast,‭ ‬Sally‭ (‬Melissa Minyard‭) ‬and Buddy‭ (‬Wayne LeGette‭) ‬live a simple life in Phoenix,‭ ‬with him often unfaithful on the road as a traveling salesman.

They are reunited,‭ ‬along with many featured performers from Follies past,‭ ‬at the theater where these extravagant revues once played,‭ ‬now crumbling and destined to be razed for a parking lot.‭ ‬In the course of one night,‭ ‬the four main characters acknowledge earlier infatuations,‭ ‬express current unhappiness and interact with the ghosts of their younger selves.‭ ‬This view of idealistic youth and the compromises made over time would be addressed again by Sondheim a decade later in‭ ‬Merrily We Roll Along,‭ ‬which also was a financial flop.

LeGette and Minyard have been paired and prominent in all three Caldwell concerts and they are again the standouts in the cast.‭ ‬You would not have to have seen the now legendary‭ ‬1985‭ ‬Follies concert at Lincoln Center to hear echoes of Mandy Patinkin‭’‬s Buddy in LeGette‭’‬s vocal approach to the character,‭ ‬but that intensity is very welcome,‭ ‬particularly on the burlesque-like‭ ‬Buddy‭’‬s Blues.‭ ‬Minyard is handed some of the score‭’‬s most haunting songs‭ (‬In Buddy‭’‬s Eyes,‭ ‬Too Many Mornings,‭Losing My Mind‭) ‬and she delivers them flawlessly.

Hodos is not as icy cool as ennui-fueled Phyllis is usually portrayed,‭ ‬but she is on-target with her laser-sharp solo,‭ ‬Could I Leave You‭?‬ And Anthony takes a while to get going as standoffish Ben,‭ ‬but eventually comes on strong on‭ ‬Live,‭ ‬Laugh,‭ ‬Love,‭ ‬an‭ ‬11‭ ‬o‭’‬clock mental breakdown number,‭ ‬something of a Sondheim specialty.

Cholerton has found some terrific new talent‭ ‬--‭ ‬Joey Zangardi,‭ ‬John Debkowski,‭ ‬Melanie Leibner and Nicole Niefeld‭ ‬--‭ ‬for the foursome‭’‬s younger selves.‭ ‬As part of his informal musical rep company,‭ ‬they definitely widen his future possibilities.

Follies is one of the few Sondheim shows where dance is an integral part of the show,‭ ‬and the Caldwell has lagged‭ ‬--‭ ‬understandably perhaps‭ ‬--‭ ‬on including much choreography in its concerts.‭ ‬As a result,‭ ‬numbers such as ‬Who‭’‬s That Woman‭?‬ And‭ ‬The Story of Lucy and Jessie fall short in their impact.‭

This concert series has grown incrementally in its use of projections as a visual backdrop.‭ ‬The opening shots of vintage portraits that morph into each other is striking,‭ ‬as are the photos of dilapidated theater palaces and a brief film clip of period dance.‭ ‬But something more is needed‭ ‬--‭ ‬either a lighting change or a scenic suggestion‭ ‬--‭ ‬to convey that the show has gone into fantasy mode in the climactic Loveland sequence.

Overall,‭ ‬this‭ ‬Follies‭ ‬concert is another gift from the Caldwell to us Sondheim fanatics,‭ ‬surely more enjoyable to those already familiar with the show than newbies.‭ ‬It is good to hear that Cholerton is committed to continuing the series and,‭ ‬if the other performances are as packed as Friday night‭’‬s was,‭ ‬the theater might make a little money on the show.

Next,‭ ‬Clive,‭ ‬how about Sondheim‭’‬s latest,‭ ‬the saga of the Mizner Brothers called‭ ‬Road Show‭ (‬a/k/a‭ ‬Bounce,‭ ‬a/k/a‭ ‬Wise Guys‭)? ‬After all,‭ ‬some of it is set in Boca Raton.

Follies‭ can be seen today at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬and‭ ‬tomorrow‭ ‬at‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬at the Caldwell Theatre,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$30-$35.‭ ‬Call‭ (‬561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬or‭ (‬877‭) ‬245-7432.‭

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