Let’s cut to the chase here. The Rep has hit another one out of the park with Follies.
In their fiftieth season – yes, and where, indeed, did the time go? - they’ve opened with the demanding, much-loved but less-commonly-seen Sondheim show from 1971. And they’ve brought in Rob Ruggiero, who’s partnered up with the Rep before with great results, to direct it.
Little is simple and straightforward with Sondheim, and here we have flashbacks swirling around a 1971 reunion of showgirls and others, all connected to a series of shows based on the Ziegfield Follies. It takes place in a tattered theater about to be razed. At a reunion, there are always ghosts, not poltergeists and their ilk but the kind we all carry with us. We see both the past and the present onstage simultaneously with visible memories. Before just about anything happens, a ghost glides across the wonderful set from Luke Cantarella. The complex, glorious costumes from Amy Clark are a promise of what is about to happen.
In some ways, this would seem a setup for just another navel-gazing piece of theater. It’s not. Things swirl for a while, story-wise, but don’t fight it, just float along; eventually it focuses on two former dancers and their spouses. The women were roommates and the men were friends during the wooing time just before World War II broke out. Sally (Christiane Noll) is a housewife in Phoenix. Sondheim has described her as neurotic, even crazy, but Noll’s Sally is a little less edgy than that, at least until later in the show. Her old friend Phyllis (Emily Skinner) lives an elegant life in New York, entertaining diplomats and attending charity balls. Skinner’s seemingly warm but very reserved responses don’t cover up her insight into what’s going on around her. The husbands, Buddy (Adam Heller), the traveling salesman based in Phoenix, and Ben (Bradley Dean) who’s become a politician and then a philanthropist, are far edgier with each other than their wives. That’s because Buddy thinks Sally is still in love with Ben.
What a group of leads the Rep is giving us, with great voices and fine acting. Heller makes us work to decide if Buddy is paranoid or really has reason to be jealous, a certain feeling of James Caan-ness in there. Dean creates a charmer who’s really pretty empty inside, growing more frantic as he realizes that despite all the money and his mighty resume, there’s not much there there.
Follies speaks loudly of the roads not taken in everyone’s life, the coulda/woulda/shoulda stuff that everyone above a certain age can understand. The love we wanted but couldn’t have, the choice we made that blew up in our face, the agony of decision, the pain of realizing the cost of decisions. Someone remarked that when they were a teenager, they didn’t understand Follies, but they surely did now. The title speaks not just of a show that’s a big elaborate review, but of life as it proceeds onward for all of us, our follies as well as The Follies.
This is a huge supporting cast, the biggest at the Rep in years, and a dozen musicians in the pit for the fine score. The two best-known songs from it are “I’m Still Here”, sung by Nancy Opel, very personal and charming, and “Losing My Mind”, from Noll, which is pretty much hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the neck stuff. But the remainder of the score is just as good, and more intriguing for its unfamiliarity. Plenty of numbers, between the dancing with Ralph Perkins’ choreography, are near- (or actual) show-stoppers.
It’s a splendid evening. The show feels beautifully, glowingly new. This is the kickoff to a new season of theater in town and it sets a very high mark.
through October 2
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis