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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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The Lion In Winter
by James Goldman
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 8, 2016

Ryan Ward, Carol Schultz, Wilson Bridges, Kurt Hellerich, Jeffrey King Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Ryan Ward, Carol Schultz, Wilson Bridges, Kurt Hellerich, Jeffrey King
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Who wants to be the King of England? The race for succession is something of a free-for-all in James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter, the first play of 2016 for the Rep. It’s an intrigue-filled, witty and dynamic historical dramatization that positively crackles with energy on stage.

The Lion In Winter is perhaps best remembered for the marvelous 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and a young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. I had seen the movie years ago and remembered the strength of the performances, but it was so long ago that I had forgotten a lot of the details. This play, based somewhat loosely on the history of England’s King Henry II (Jeffrey King), is full of sharp dialogue, drama, and lots and lots of humor. That last part is what surprised me the most, actually.  It’s a very sharply written script with extremely well-developed characters including Henry’s estranged wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Carol Schultz), and the latest object of his affections, Alais (Angela Janas), who grew up in Henry’s court and was betrothed to his son Richard (Grayson DeJesus) at an early age, although she is now Henry’s mistress and is being used as something of a bargaining tool in the constant machinations concerning who is actually going to inherit the throne.  There’s Richard, the eldest surviving son and the obvious candidate, as he’s a skilled soldier and charismatic leader. He’s also Eleanor’s choice to be the next king. Henry’s choice, for whatever reason, is his petulant and immature youngest son, John (Kurt Hellerich), who Henry also wants to marry Alais in Richard’s place, despite the objections of her brother Philip (Ryan Ward), the King of France, who is currently in attendance at Henry’s palace for his Christmas court. In between these two candidates stands the crafty, well-educated and duplicitous middle son, Geoffrey (Wilson Bridges), who doesn’t initially seem to want to be King very much, but as the plot develops, so do his and everyone else’s ambitions. The center of the play is the combative, contentious, and oddly still affectionate relationship between Henry and Eleanor, who despite having been imprisoned by him for years, still loves him in her way.

It’s the relationships, the incisive dialogue laced with cutting humor, and the strongly developed characterizations that make this play so intensely fascinating, and it’s a brilliant showcase for the Rep’s excellent cast. It’s easy to see in King’s boisterous, confrontational, and charming performance how his three very different sons all take after him in their own ways. Richard’s bravado, Geoffrey’s scheming wit, and John’s almost childlike sense of entitlement are all reflected in King’s vibrant portrayal. Schultz, as the proud Eleanor, matches King scene for scene, and it’s their chemistry that drives the show. Schultz also does an excellent job of portraying Eleanor’s underlying sense of loneliness and rejection without losing that stubborn determination that keeps her going. As the sons, DeJesus is memorable as the soldierly but conflicted Richard, Bridges is deliciously snide as Geoffrey, and Hellerich is convincing as the snippy, bratty youngest son John. There’s also good work from Ward as the still fairly young King of France, Philip, who harbors a secret past with Richard and strives to be taken seriously as a monarch by Henry. Janas, as Alais, is also fine as a young woman who genuinely loves Henry, but is growing increasingly weary of being used as a pawn in his schemes.

Visually, the production has an authentic look with something of a modern twist. Mathew J. Lebebvre’s costumes are appropriately detailed, with rich, regal colors and textures, while Joseph P. Tilford’s set is more suggestive than deliberately realistic. Flanked by giant statues enclosed in glass-covered pillars, the stage has somewhat of the feel of a medieval exhibit at a museum. The furniture and set pieces give the production the right historical atmosphere with a degree of artifice that works well for the tone of the play. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Thomas C. Hase and sound by Rusty Wandall, with an excellent use of scene-setting music.

This is a much funnier play than I had been expecting. Perhaps I need to see the movie again, but I didn’t remember that tone from the film. As directed at the Rep by Edward Stern, the top-notch cast makes the most of every line of dialogue and every tense moment. Although it might not be entirely historically accurate, it’s a bold, fascinating dramatization that’s riveting from start to finish. It’s an intelligent, highly energetic, first-rate production.

lioninwinter2

Grayson DeJesus, Carol Schultz Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Lion in Winter runs at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until January 31, 2016.

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