Brent Barrett and Susan Moniz
in Follies
(© Liz Lauren)
Brent Barrett and Susan Moniz
in Follies
(© Liz Lauren)
For Stephen Sondheim, love has long been a matter of obsession or manipulation expressed intellectually. But in his landmark 1971 musical Follies, now being presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Sondheim and book writer James Goldman deliver a group of characters with heartfelt emotions. Here, they come to near-perfect life thanks to a convincing cast and the loving hands of veteran director Gary Griffin and musical director Brad Haak.

Follies takes place in a crumbling Broadway theater in 1971 at the final reunion of the beautiful girls of the Weismann Follies, a once-popular series of long-ago lavish musical revues. Shadowed by the ghosts of their younger selves, the retired showgirls perform their old numbers and reminisce about the old days.

After an opening sequence that introduces the reunion attendees, the piece quickly focuses on two former Weismann Girls, Phyllis Rogers Stone (Caroline O'Connor) and Sally Durant Plummer (Susan Moniz), and their respective husbands, Ben (Brent Barrett) and Buddy (Robert Petkoff), one-time best friends who courted the girls together. The ensuing 30 years since their last meeting have not been emotionally kind to the foursome, and long-buried loves and hurts quickly re-emerge.

Follies mixes contemporary-sounding character numbers with older-sounding Follies songs, written in the styles of operetta or Irving Berlin or Gershwin. Unarguably it's one of Sondheim's very best scores, with such thrilling numbers as Hattie's "Broadway Baby" (performed by Marilynn Bogetich), Carlotta's "I'm Still Here" (sung by Hollis Resnik), and Ben and Sally's "Too Many Mornings." But for most of the show, the music serves a thin storyline.

Shortly after the second act begins, Follies screeches to a halt and gives way to the lavish "Loveland Sequence," a brilliant imagining of what a Weismann show might have been, during which each song is a psychological exploration of one of the lead characters. It's entirely up to the music now to move the story forward and Sondheim doesn't fail. When Sally delivers the show-stopping torch song, "Losing My Mind," all the rue and regret of her life is put forth. By the sequence's end, all the lost hope and present pain of Sally, Phyllis, Buddy, and Ben tumble together in a gut-smacking avalanche.

As a show-within-a-show,Follies demands dazzle, which is amply supplied by Virgil C. Johnson's witty costumes, Kevin Depinet's massive theater-within-a-theater set, Christine Binder's lighting, and Alex Sanchez's choreography. But it's Griffin's key decision to utilize Chicago Shakespeare Theater's deep thrust stage, with the performers just inches away and literally eye-to-eye with viewers on three sides, that makes this production really work.

Credit is also due to the dedicated cast. If they did not completely believe what they sing -- even for one second -- the show would be lost. Gloriously, this production of Follies never is.