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Follies
Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 9, 2016

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

With the Repertory of St. Louis Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, nostalgia is sure to abound. It’s especially fitting now for the Rep to open its new season with Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, a musical that explores both good and bad aspects of nostalgia, and reflects on hopes, dreams, regrets, and the power of memory. It’s also a pastiche of old Broadway themes and styles, and on stage at the Rep, it looks and sounds positively stunning.

The stage at the Rep is constantly changing in this production, thanks to Luke Cantarella’s vividly realized set design that makes excellent use of a turntable. The space represents an old, dilapidated Broadway theatre that is due to be demolished, and it’s haunted by the “ghosts” or memories of the elaborately dressed showgirls who used to perform there. The theatre becomes the scene for a reunion of many performers, mostly women, who participated in the “Weismann Follies” between the World Wars.  They have been invited there by Follies producer Dimitri Weismann (Joneal Joplin) so that they can reconnect, remember, reflect, and say goodbye to the old theatre that was such an important part of their lives in the past. Among the various Follies alumni are former roommates Sally Durant Plummer (Christiane Noll) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Emily Skinner), who are now middle-aged and married to the former “stage door Johnnies” who used to court them at the theatre. Sally’s husband Buddy (Adam Heller) is a salesman who loves Sally but has been worn out by years of feeling rejected by her. Sally still carries a torch for Ben Stone (Bradley Dean), who was involved briefly with Sally when they were younger but chose to marry Phyllis instead. Phyllis, stuck for years in an unhappy marriage to the well-connected, well-known politician Ben, is forced to confront her own choice to marry and stay with him, as well as trying to reconcile the idealistic but unrefined young woman she used to be with her more sophisticated but jaded present-day existence. All four have younger counterparts (Sarah Quinn Taylor as Young Sally, Kathryn Boswell as Young Phyllis, Michael Williams as Young Ben, and Cody Williams as Young Buddy) who interact with their present-day selves in a series of flashbacks, vestiges of memories. Meanwhile, the other Follies performers relive their glory days by performing their signature numbers and reflecting on their own lives in show business and elsewhere. And then there’s the stylized “Loveland” sequence in the second half of Act 2. This is a complex, multi-faceted show that provides an excellent showcase for most of the members of its large cast.

That superb cast is led by the extraordinary performances of this production’s Sally and Phyllis, Noll and Skinner. Noll brings a childlike quality to Sally that is ideal for the role of the middle-aged regretful starlet-turned-housewife who continues to delude herself by living in the past. Her rendition of Sondheim’s classic “Losing My Mind” is achingly real. Skinner, as the seemingly tougher, caustic Phyllis, allows the audience to see the vulnerability that lies beneath her outward steeliness. She delivers a devastating interpretation of “Would I Leave You?” and an energetic, clear performance of her song that outlines her inner conflict between who she was, who she is now, and how she wishes she could be in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”. Heller brings a great deal of sympathy to the disillusioned, weary Buddy, who pines for a real relationship with Sally and lives in the shadow of her memories of Ben. For his own part, Dean plays Ben with just the right mixture of charm, regret, and confusion, bringing a lot of raw emotion to his big number in the “Loveland” sequence, “Live, Laugh, Love”. Taylor, Boswel, Michael Williams and Cody Williams are also excellent as the leads’ younger selves, and the rest of the cast is simply stellar. There are top-notch turns from Nancy Opel as former Follies girl turned TV star Carlotta, whose ode to a life in showbiz, “I’m Still Here” is a highlight. There’s also the terrific Zoe Vonder Haar singing the classic “Broadway Baby” with strength and style, an excellent haunting version of “One More Kiss” by Carol Skarimbas as the oldest of the alums, the gloriously voiced Heidi Schiller, in duet with the also great Julie Hanson and her younger self. And perhaps best of all is E. Fay Butler as Stella Deems leading the rest of her follow Follies alums in a spectacularly choreographed tap number, “Who’s That Woman?” that stops the show.

Visually, this show is simply a treat as well, with that spectacular, constantly morphing set and Amy Clark’s marvelous, colorful costumes that help bring the Follies atmosphere to life. The atmosphere of the early 1970s and the various preceding eras is ideally realized. There’s also wonderful lighting work by John Lasiter that helps set the mood particularly in the flashback and fantasy sequences, and top-notch sound design by Randy Hanson.

I had been looking forward to this production, being a Sondheim fan and having seen the excellent 2011 revival on Broadway. At the Rep, the show is just as spectacular as anything on Broadway. It’s a poignant reflection on how the past informs the present, as well as a glorious celebration of classic musical styles from the first half of the 20th Century. It’s at turns thrilling, funny, dramatic and heartbreaking. Follies is a spectacular way for the Rep to start off its historic 50th season. Go see it while you can. It’s not to be missed.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Follies is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until October 2, 2016. 

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So, I recently got to go to New York for my brother’s wedding, and I took the opportunity to take in three Broadway shows while I was there.  It was so much fun to be able to walk around the Times Square area and just soak up the atmosphere.  I feel truly blessed to have been able to take in shows in the two greatest theatre cities on Earth (London and New York) in the same year, and it was fun to compare as well.  Overall, I think New York is bigger and flashier and London, while still big and flashy in its own way, is a little more relaxed.   I didn’t find myself wanting to move to New York when I always want to move to London, but I mostly chalk that up to the fact that I’m an unrepentant Anglophile and as far as I’m concerned (for the most part) things are just more fun when they’re British.  Still, this was New York City, and it definitely lived up to the hype.  I’d been there before, but not for over a decade and I had only seen two shows on Broadway before, so this time I took advantage of the chance to see as many shows as I could and just enjoy the Broadway atmosphere.  I hope I get a chance to go back many times in the future.  Here are reviews of the three shows I saw:

 Follies

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by James Goldman

Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Marquis Theatre, New York, NY

October 12, 2011

The chance to see this show was kind of a dream come true for me, since I’ve been a fan of Stephen Sondheim and Bernadette Peters since I was a teenager.  It was also great to be able to see London theatre legend Elaine Paige on stage as well, along with a top-notch cast of Broadway veterans.  This was  a classic Sondheim show with star-studded cast, and the production did not disappoint.

The mood is set the minute you walk in the door, as the relatively new Marquis Theatre has been transformed by set designer Derek McLane into a crumbling old variety house years past its prime and ready for demolition, with  a worn-out stage and black and gray sheets draped everywhere.  The “ghosts” of elaborately dressed showgirls haunt the space, wandering in and out of scenes and standing about on the various levels of scaffolding backing the stage.  It’s the story of a reunion of participants (mostly showgirls) from a Ziegfeld-like variety revue called the Weissmann Follies, which supposedly ran in this old theatre every year between the World Wars.  Here the former Follies girls update each other on how they have been and remember their glory days as young performers.  Some of the women seem to have few regrets and others have many, but for the central characters Sally (Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), and their husbands Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines), regret is still a major part of their lives, as played out in the events of the show as they revisit and recall their earlier selves, culminating in a Follies-styled “Loveland” fantasy sequence, where they portray the follies of their own lives, showbiz-style.

I don’t want to write a novel about this production, so I’ll have to condense my thoughts and just say it was wonderful.  The leads were universally well-cast, and the contrast between Peters’ depressed, delusional Sally and Maxwell’s bitter, sarcastic and cynical Phyllis was striking.  Both gave wonderful performances, but to my mind, Maxwell was the star of the show, giving a truly multi-layered performance. Her numbers “Could I Leave You?”, simmering with caustic wit, and “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”, in which she portrays her struggle between the younger and older versions of herself, were true highlights of the production.  She was also very well matched by Raines as the self-absorbed, self-destructing Ben.  Peters had a great moment with “Losing My Mind”, as well, perfectly portraying Sally’s obsessive love for another woman’s husband.  Peters is such a master of Sondheim’s material that all she has to do is stand onstage and sing, portraying the full emotional range of the song and holding the audience riveted.  Danny Burstein as the charming but conflicted Buddy also had some great moments, and together these four formed the center of the production.

Another strength to Follies, though, is that its structure gives many performers their moments to shine as the other former Follies girls tell their stories and remember their Follies performances.  Highlights from this production were Jane Houdyshell’s brassy “Broadway Baby” and Terri White leading the ensemble in a dance number with their younger counterparts in “Who’s That Woman”—a true show-stopping moment.  Paige’s gutsy ode to the ups-and-downs of a career in showbusiness, “I’m Still Here” was also a showstopper.  Also, veteran opera singer Rosalind Elias has a great, poignant duet with Leah Horowitz (as Elias’s younger self) on “One More Kiss”.  I could list more great moments, but I would just end up listing the entire song list, as the universally excellent cast delivered a strong production from start to finish.

The sets and costumes (costumes designed by Gregg Barnes) were elaborately done and helped to set the conflicting moods of showbiz energy and underlying darkness, and the “Loveland” sequence in the second act was a bright, fluffy (yes, fluffy) contrast to the dreary, dilapidated theatre setting of the rest of the show.  This production was truly marvelous from the performances to the look and and the feel for time and place.  I felt privileged to witness it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser

Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert

Directed and Choregraphed by Rob Ashford

Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York, NY

October 13, 2011

For a lot of people, this production is simply thought of as “that show with the guy from Harry Potter”, but it’s really a whole lot more than that.  Sure, Daniel Radcliffe is front-and-center in the advertising–and he’s great in a very un-Potterlike performance–but no one performer can carry a show with such a large ensemble by himself.  This show, the second Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1961 musical, is a full-scale, well-rounded production that looks great, sounds great and is a whole lot of fun.

This is a broadly satirical tale of a young window-washer, J. Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe), who takes the advice of a book (narrated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper) in how to rise to the upper levels of management at the World Wide Wicket Corporation.  Along the way, he meets Rosemary (Rose Hemingway), a young secretary with lofty goals of her own, as well as the boss’s nephew Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke) who becomes his professional nemesis, and a varied host of secretaries,  office workers and corporate executives. .  The boss, J.B. Biggley, is played with a kind of goofy charm by the show’s other well-known star, John Larroquette (best known from the classic sitcom Night Court), and his scenes with Radcliffe are a delight.  The tone of this piece is satire, with many jabs at corporate culture that are still relevant today, but also with a very palpable 60s vibe provided by the excellent costumes and sets.

The performances are universally appealing.  The role of Finch demands an actor with loads of (seemingly) guileless charm, and Radcliffe delivers.  He does at times seem a little subdued in his acting, in contrast to the broadly comic tone of the show, but for the most part he is excellent, and his dancing skills are surprisingly adept.  Hemingway is perfectly cast as the secretary who pursues Finch romantically, and their chemistry together is sweet and believable.  Other stand-outs in the cast are Tammy Blanchard as ditzy bombshell secretary Hedy La Rue, with a look reminiscent of Joan from Mad Men and a voice reminiscent of Slappy Squirrel from Animaniacs, and the aforementioned Laroquette, who seems to be having an absolute ball in this part and owns the stage whenever he’s on.  Hanke as Frump makes for a effective bumbling “heel”, and  Mary Faber as Rosemary’s secretary friend Smitty and Ellen Harvey as Biggley’s secretary Miss Jones put in fine comic performances as well.

This is a dance-heavy show where the leads and the ensemble get quite a workout—there are dancing mail workers (“Company Way”), dancing secretaries (“Cinderella Darling”), dancing football players (“Grand Old Ivy”), dancing executives (“Brotherhood of Man”) and even dancing pirates (“Pirate Dance”), and all of the dancing is full of seemingly effortless energy.  “Brotherhood of Man” in particular stopped the show with its gradually building, stage-filling controlled chaos.  Radcliffe more than holds his own in this department, as does the fine ensemble.

I must also make special mention of the spectacular set.  Done in a colorful mid-century modern style with geometric patterns, shelves that slide out from the sides to serve as offices, and modules that are rearranged into various configurations as needed to suggest the corporate environment, the set serves very well to set the tone and mood of this production.  The color-shifting hexagon background  reminds me of a 60s game show, and there’s an authentic-looking, functional elevator as well.  Kudos to set designer Derek McLane for his excellent work here.

Overall, I had a great time at this show.  It’s much more than just Harry Potter on stage (in fact, it isn’t that at all).  It is a thoroughly entertaining, well-directed and choreographed satire of the business world, winningly performed by an appealing cast.  I highly recommend checking it out.

Anything Goes

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and Howard Linday and Russel Crouse

New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Wideman

Directed and Choregraped by Kathleen Marshall

Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York, NY

October 16, 2011

This is the Tony Award-winning revival of the classic Cole Porter show, normally starring Sutton Foster and Joel Grey.  At the performance I saw, however, the understudies were on–Tari Kelly for Foster as Reno Sweeney, and Robert Creighton for Grey as Moonface Martin.  I could hear some not-so-subtle grumbling from some audience members at the fact that the marquee names were not performing, but by the end of the first act most such complaints were silenced, as both Kelly and Creighton gave wonderful, star-worthy performances.

This is a show about the music, really.  It’s Cole Porter hit after Cole Porter hit, with a somewhat silly but still very entertaining plot to string the songs together.  Most of the action takes place on an ocean liner in the 1930s, where nightclub singer Reno Sweeney performs her church-inspired act and multiple subplots ensue involving her friends Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell), a stockbroker who is in love with a debutante (Erin Mackey), and Moonface Martin, a small-time gangster who is on the run from the law. There is much energetic singing and dancing along the way, all expertly done by the excellent ensemble.

Kelly and Creighton were really the heart of the production, with stage presence and energy galore.  Kelly commanded the stage with numbers like “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, singing and dancing up a storm, and Creighton was delightful as Moonface, especially in his Act 2 number “Be Like the Bluebird”.  He did a wonderful job playing the “gangster with a heart of gold” with all the necessary charm and just the right hint of menace that made him believable as a gangster.  Also excellent were Donnell as the handsome, lovestruck Crocker and Mackey as his love interest Hope Harcourt, and the two had excellent chemistry and danced very well together in “It’s De-Lovely”.  John McMartin as Billy’s boss, the goofy old business tycoon Eli Whitney and Kelly Bishop as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt provided some fun comic moments, and Adam Godley as Hope’s eccentric English fiancé Lord Evelyn Oakleigh was a sheer delight as well, putting a whole lot of energy into his number with Reno, “The Gypsy In Me”.

The dance numbers in this show were a real highlight, with energetic, tightly-executed routines, and the set (again by Derek McLane) was fun, as well.  The ship was constructed of various modules that could be rearranged and turned around to form the various set pieces, including the staterooms.  The meticulously detailed costumes by Martin Paklidinaz added to the 30s-era feel of the show as well.  Overall, I felt transported to the 1930s and had a great time joining the cast and crew on their voyage.

The moral of this story is, don’t be too disappointed when you see a show and find out the understudies are on.  You just might be pleasantly surprised, as I definitely was here.  Anything Goes was a complete joy of a show, and the understudy/leads more than held their own.  I would love to get a chance to see the regular players and compare, but as that option is unlikely, I will just be happy with what I did get, which was a wonderful performance from all.

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