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East West Players, the oldest established Asian Pacific American theater company in the U.S., has enjoyed great success with the work of Stephen Sondheim in the past, including critically acclaimed productions of Pacific Overtures, Company, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. But Follies is not one of the company's better efforts.

To begin with, Sondheim's radiant score for the show is undermined by James Goldman's woefully lackluster book. In the present production, the esteemed composer/lyricist is further done in by an ensemble that rarely rises above the level of community theater performance. And Tim Dang's turgid, often clumsy staging is no help at all. Fortunately, music director Scott Nagatani and an outstanding four-member instrumental ensemble keep some semblance of professionalism going throughout the show.

Follies chronicles a reunion of former showgirls in the theater where they used to perform, now scheduled for demolition. Sally (Linda Dangcil) and Phyllis (Freda Foh Shen) are haunted by memories of their youth, when they were roommates being courted and bedded by the virile lads who eventually married them. Now older and sadder, Sally's Buddy (Robert Almodovar) and Phyllis' Ben (Sab Shimono) are also chasing a few ghosts from the past.

Freda Foh Shen and
Sab Shimono in Follies
(Photo by Michael Lamont)
The production's most satisfying portrayal is turned in by Dangcil, whose stage credits range from Mary Martin's Peter Pan in the '50s to the West Coast premiere of A Chorus Line in the '70s. She is a consummate musical theater pro whose emotion-laden voice immediately gets to the heart of such dramatically rich Sondheim songs as "Don't Look At Me," "In Buddy's Eyes" and the now-classic "Losing My Mind." The almost breathtakingly beautiful Foh Shen properly exudes soulless sophistication as Phyllis, a woman who has suffered through many years of a bloodless, upscale marriage; but her limited emotional range severely hampers the effectiveness of the character's landmark anthem to conjugal unhappiness, "Could I Leave You," and the deceptively light-hearted song and dance number "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."

On the male side of this dysfunctional quartet, Shimono's displays limited vocal ability in "The Road You Didn't Take," "Too Many Mornings," and "Live, Laugh, Love." Almodovar's Buddy effectively communicates longing in "The Right Girl" but does not possess the technical virtuosity to capture the irony of "The-God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues."

Each of the supporting "Follies" ladies has her turn in the spotlight, with decidedly mixed results. Well-known comic actress Amy Hill (Grandma in ABC's All American Girl) blasts through the supposedly poignant "Broadway Baby" with little concern for emotional dynamics or pitch. Yukari Asamoto-Black's rendition of "Ah, Paris" sinks under the weight of her hyper-affectation. On the plus side, Emily Kuroda expertly conveys the hard-edged façade of show-biz survivor Carlotta Campion in her commanding performance of "I'm Still Here."

Al Goeku (Young Phyllis) and Paul Martinez (Young Ben) display the unrealistic enthusiasm of youth in "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow," as do Ben V. Gonio (Young Buddy) and Yumi Iwama (Young Sally) in "Love Will See Us Through." Bradley Kaye's set design effectively evokes a decaying theater palace, but barely leaves room for the ensemble to perform. On the other hand, Frank McKown's lighting perfectly sets off the on-stage ramblings of the Follies folks, young and old.


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