The unavoidable limitations of the Caldwell Theatre’s stirring concert edition of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies will only make you ache for a full production.
The single piano standing in for an orchestra, projections standing in for opulent sets, 13 actors standing in for twice that number, four days’ rehearsal for a show that needs four weeks ‘ all of that is offset by a talented troupe gamely delivering an unassailably entertaining and often thrilling evening.
In the Caldwell’s third Sondheim concert outing, director Clive Cholerton has gathered a strong cast who nimbly negotiate Sondheim’s infamous tongue-twisting lyrics with crystal enunciation and croon these songs as if they were lovers.
The underrated book by James Goldman doesn’t have a plot so much as it provides a vent for characters in late middle-age tortured by their irrevocable choices and compromises. Retired performers from Ziegfeld-like revues gather for a final reunion in 1971. Among them are two couples: The first is Buddy (Wayne LeGette), a stage door Johnny turned travelling salesman, and his wife Sally, (Melissa Minyard) a showgirl turned Phoenix housefrau. The second are their former friends, Ben (Stephen G. Anthony) a sophisticated diplomat and now burned-out lawyer, and his wife, Phyllis (Laura Hodos), a chorine who reinvented herself as a society doyenne.
The reunion is a surreal affair with younger versions of the quartet drifting around like ghosts and the older guests recreating their star turns. The collision of past and present force the dormant fractures in their relationships to crack apart until everyone dreams themselves into a fantasyland where their neuroses split wide open.
Sondheim wrote a swirling score in which each number is a pastiche of a song genre of the period. It includes a candidate for the best torch song of all time, Losing My Mind; the finest survivor song, I’m Still Here, and perhaps the best showbiz anthem, Broadway Baby. While some songs show off verbal pyrotechnics such as the brittle The Story of Lucy and Jessie, moving ballads like Losing My Mind are as terse as haiku.
Cholerton and musical director Eric Alsford do not simply let the cast stand and deliver a Sondheim song revue interrupted by some of Goldman’s lines. They elicited credible acting during and between musical numbers. With limited time for staging, Cholerton carefully placed actors, especially juxtaposing the older characters and their ghostly younger selves. For instance, when Ben sings the aching song of lost love Too Many Mornings, he sings it not to the older Sally standing a few yards away but while embracing her young ghost.
Standouts in the cast included LeGette who almost splits in two during his schizophrenic vaudeville turn Buddy’s Blues, Hodos who inhabits her arch weary character with flair, and above all, Melissa Minyard whose melodious voice consistently mines lyrics for their deeper meanings, notably in breath-stopping In Buddy’s Eyes.
Other cast members included Colleen Amaya, Jeanne Bennett, John Debkowski, Kevin Healey, Melanie Leibner, Megan Colleen Moroney, Nicole Niefeld, Lourelene Snedeker and Joey Zangardi.
The show was far from perfect, but the cast who studied the parts at home, only had 29 hours of joint rehearsal. Some folks dropped a few lyrics and missed a few high notes. Some iconic numbers were delivered flawlessly, but lacked the acid tinge and pizzazz you yearn for.
The one crippling problem was most of the ‘older’ performers were 5 to 15 years too young for characters who struggling with the specter of mortality; that visually undercut the credibility of Sondheim and Goldman’s lines about disillusionment and regret. But on the plus side, that meant Alsford had a dependable corps of singers that he could lead through difficult material.
Follies was first produced in 1971 with a cast that included John McMartin, Dorothy Collins, Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson and Yvonne DeCarlo. At the time, all were slightly faded but bona fide stars of the 1940s through 1960s. That, in itself, created a painful resonance for the middle-aged audience that squirmed at seeing their own fears on a stage more accustomed to light-hearted romps. It was revived regionally, in London and on Broadway, but the most stunning version was a two-night concert edition in 1985 at Lincoln Center starring Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin and Carol Burnett. The rehearsals and large portions of the show were filmed for a PBS special available on DVD and CD.
The original production was unusually expensive because of some of the most ornate sets and costumes seen up to that time, plus legendary choreography by Michael Bennett. Mounting a full production locally would be cost-prohibitive for all but two theaters in South Florida, but this one makes you dream.
It’s a painfully brief run; you’d be wise to catch it while you can.
Follies plays through Sunday at the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Performances 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. caldwelltheatre.com; 561-241-7432.