Something magical’s happening on Navy Pier, and it’s not the weekly fireworks spectacle, though there are enough explosive moments to drive any fan of honest-to-God good musical theatre to near hysterics.
It’s Gary Griffin’s astounding production of Follies, packed with so many showstopping moments, it should be against the law. I wish you could have heard the opening night crowd after Caroline O’Connor’s steam-heated “Lucy and Jessie,” or Susan Moniz’s torchy “Losing My Mind,” or Hollis Resnik’s diva-tastic “I’m Still Here,” or …
But the best Follies isn’t just about big moments, although that’s a major point of the show as these former follies girls gather for one last hurrah before their theatre is torn down. No, Follies is also about tying these moments together with a cohesive dramatic thread. And Griffin’s production focuses on the core partygoers and their struggles as they challenge their ghosts face-on (and quite literally in this production: in “Who’s That Woman?,” for example, the ladies have a tap-off with their ghostly counterparts while looking them square in the eye.)
Griffin has assembled a very fine, and unexpected, cast. The compact O’Connor maximizes her atypical casting to great effect — her Phyllis comes off like a street-tough kid from the Bronx who married well (traits unfortunately not echoed by her younger counterpart), rather than the typical statuesque ice princess. And Moniz’s off-centered and extremely well-sung Sally seems particularly grounded in her delusion of marrying Ben, Phyllis’s husband, where some Sallys just seem delusional. This Sally’s on a mission, baby. However, this approach is a double-edged sword; Moniz’s final scene when she realizes there was “never any Ben” for her is too flatly played. Moniz’s no-nonsense Sally is more confused at the end than devastated.
There are a few other missed opportunities, mostly in terms of pacing. Young Buddy, Sally, Ben and Phyllis’ brief scenettes become snippetts as they quickly rush on and off Chicago Shakes’ thrust stage, prohibiting us from being drawn into their critical back story. (To add to this confusion, there were some odd costume choices for Young Sally and Phyllis — for example, older Sally’s pink dress matches young Phyllis’s dress in their first scene together. Why? And Phyllis’s boxy blue dress doesn’t do O’Connor any favors. Otherwise, Virgil C. Johnson’s costume designs are eye-poppingly wonderful.) Also, the otherwise first-rate music direction rushes the tempi at times, particularly during the overture and “Waiting for the Girls.”
But the good far, far outweighs these issues. I was particularly smitten by the direction of Resnik’s big number. Typically, this anthem is mostly belted out in a spotlight, front and center. Here, the glamorous Resnik delivers bits of her song (in a sly and wry purr rather than a ferocious belt) to various members of the party, almost in vignettes, giving us the impression she’s telling her tale of well-worn triumph to anyone who’ll listen. I also loved during “Too Many Mornings” when Moniz, while hitting a high note in their duet, leans far back with her hands in the air, ready for Ben (the rugged and strong voiced Brent Barrett) to ravish her. It’s such a beautifully vulnerable moment, providing much insight into Sally’s psyche. She’s so ready. But Ben isn’t. Not yet. And possibly not ever. It was one of many spine-chilling moments for me.
After seeing the Broadway production last weekend (my review here), I feel incredibly spoiled that I’ve now seen two world-class productions of this rarely produced Sondheim masterpiece in less than a week. Tune in for “The Great Follies Smack-down of 2011,” where I’ll rank each production in a number of key criteria to determine the victor! EDIT: The smack-down is over! Who’s the victor? Read here >
“Follies” plays through November 13 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. More info here >