Any major production of “Follies” not only has to deal with the haunting reunion of Ziegfeld-like showgirls at a theater about to be demolished, it also must contend with the ghosts from previous editions of the 1971 landmark musical. Does the new production rethink, revise or simply revisit the show? How does the casting compare? Which ending does the show choose? Is this at last the dream revival?
The Sondheim faithful who make the pilgrimage to the Berkshires will not find that elusive musical miracle at Barrington Stage, but they will discover a solid and, in many ways, remarkable production. The results are all the more impressive given the limits of a summer theater schedule and venue (a school auditorium, no less). With astute casting, honest direction and some stunning star turns, this production is one to admire.
As if going through the five stages of grieving — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — “Follies'” characters mourn their lives in a fragmentary emotional swirl. The nonlinear tangle of reality and fantasy, sanity and madness, past and present often trips up productions. Director Julianne Boyd and her cast find measured success by simply trusting the complex but clear-headed honesty and grace of the music.
Barrington Stage’s “Follies” builds on the momentum of its major discovery from last season — the Broadway hit “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” This “Follies,” too, might have some life beyond its limited run here. At the very least, it demonstrates that with smart choices, the show’s imposing reputation and size can be handled well with a 23-member cast, an eight-piece orchestra and a less-than-ideal setting.
Still, some of the practical edits for this production are less than ideal: Combining the Weismann and Roscoe characters and double-casting the novelty singers with the dancing couple diminishes the sweep of the show. And one could always have more musicians, or ghosts for that matter. None of the downsizing is too damaging, however, because what is presented onstage is so good, especially the two mismatched couples whose look back at life is at the center of the show.
Jeff McCarthy is a musically assured Ben Stone, while handling the character’s insincere sincerity with the professional elegance of a pre-arrest CEO. Leslie Denniston, as his wife, Phyllis, is also suitably cool but hints at a more incendiary inner life. Choosing the less dance-demanding “Ah, But Underneath” (from the London production) for her climactic number puts the focus on the character’s revelations, both lyrical and otherwise. (That Wonder Woman garment underneath might not be the best choice for a strip tease, however.)
As the original desperate housewife Sally, Kim Crosby brings a disturbing poignancy to the role, especially in an exquisite and richly felt “Losing My Mind.” Lara Teeter, who also choreographs, overplays her husband, Buddy, from his earliest scene and has little to build on afterward — but he gives a dazzling eccentric perf of “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.”
The unhappy choices of the two central couples are offset by the alternative life perspectives offered by those who have come to terms with their own personal “Follies.” As Carlotta, Donna McKechnie is suitably seasoned and sings that anthem to pragmatism, “I’m Still Here,” with a wonderful musicality not often shown in the number. As Heidi, Marni Nixon brings her operatic voice, luminous presence and musical history to the joy of sweet memory with “One Last Kiss.” Diane Houghton as a no-nonsense Hattie lands “Broadway Baby” with professional polish, while Diane J. Findlay as Stella nearly stops the show with the self-mocking “Who’s That Woman.” However, Joy Franz’s Solange has a fleeting French accent, for which she overcompensates with grotesque mugging.
Tech side is impressive, with Michael Anania’s evocative set, most of Alejo Vietti’s costumes and lighting by Scott Pinkney and D. Benjamin Courtney that keeps track of all the roving characters. Darren Cohen makes the most of his modestly sized but largely skilled orchestra.
Despite endless carping about the banalities of the characters’ crises or the weakness of the ending, the enduring greatness of “Follies” comes in the grappling with life’s questions in such dazzling musical and theatrical terms. If done carefully, truthfully and well — as it is here — “Follies” can be powerful on any stage.