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. . . and the men who married them recall the good old days with regret and suspicion

Elisa Dugan kicks up her heels.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/24/2010


By Stephen Sondheim

Through Feb. 28 at The swirnow theatre

Oh those lights! Oh those productions! Oh those dames! Back before WWII came along, Broadway used to mount some dazzling displays of Depression distractions, productions of vamping vaudevillian variety shows complete with funnymen and high-heeled showgirls smiling and shaking their glittering gams. Thirty years on, the performers of the Weismann Follies have gathered for a final fete at the now derelict theater that used to be their home, getting together to share memories, see if they can still get through some of the old numbers all these years later, and, perhaps, see if the flicker of an old romance can be stoked back into a flame.

Such is the premise of Stephen Sondheim's entertaining 1971 Follies. By the early '70s, Sondheim had proven his mastery of the traditional American musical, learning under Oscar Hammerstein II, penning the lyrics to late 1950s hits West Side Story and Gypsy, and eventually scoring his own hit with 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In the '70s, though, Sondheim began experimenting with form and content, all but reinventing the musical. His most radical outing is still 1970's Company, an episodic journey through a single man's love life that put John O'Hara-esque Manhattan melodrama onstage.

Follies is equally suspicious of relationships, and actually a bit more musically daring. Follies' score recalls--and may even outright quote--tunes from the '30s era that's being reexamined here, only punctured with knowing, cynical lyrics. The result is a musical pastiche that marries the energy of '30s showbiz with marital foibles.

It's a vibe that Theatre Hopkins' large ensemble nails, thanks in large parts to the actual sparks generated by the musical's central couples. Phyllis (Patricia Coleman) and Sally (Nancy Asendorf) used to be showgirls and roommates, and since each has married one of the guys who used to wait for the girls backstage. Sally went off with Buddy (Ken Ewing), a big lug of a man who travels for business, which leaves her at their Phoenix home alone now that their two sons have grown. Phyllis married Ben (Jeff Burch), Buddy's former best pal, who went on to become quite successful and heads a foundation of sorts; he and Phyllis live in New York and Sally frequently sees their picture in magazines.

Sally carried a torch for Ben back in the day, though, and he returned her interest right back. Seeing each other again, in fact, has stirred up some of those old feelings--longings and urges they recall as young versions of Sally (Becca Vourvoulas), Ben (Tom Burns), Phyllis (Amy Pierson), and Buddy (Robert Tucker) haunt the former theater and enact old scenes and, eventually interact with their older selves. Sally and Ben wonder if they've made the right choices, Buddy and Phyllis wonder if they can continue to deny their marriages' troubles as they have for the past 30 years. And all around them, old friends/performers break into songs with lyrics colored not by rose-colored nostalgia, but gimlet-eyed honesty.

The music is what really carries this production, and the cast has the singing chops. Most impressive is musical director/pianist Douglas Lawler and his percussion accompanist William Watson, who expertly balance the musical's tone through its jaunty, silly numbers and its emotive, moving showdowns. And this balance is what gives the production such a blithe energy. One moment you're consummately entertained by actress Nan Kaestner comically Frenchy-ing out Solange's "Ah Paris"--as in, giving a canary-high chirp to such lily-gilding lyrics as "So if it's making love/ That you're thinking of/ Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah! Paree!"--the next you're having you're knees-knocked by actress Eileen Aubele digging into Carlotta's "I'm Still Here," as superb a survivor's torch song as Dreamgirls' "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," only without the need for vocal pyrotechnics.

And it's a good measure of what this production gets right. Sondheim's Follies is a wordy musical, in that its numbers lyrics carry all of the narrative plot and its emotional subtext, which could get lost by performers trying to scream and shout their way into the limelight. An ensemble effort is what makes it work, and Theatre Hopkins competent cast understands that everybody onstage helps interlock and untangle the musical's central couples.

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