Encore Michigan

Theatre Nova tees up ‘Follies In Concert’ for fund raiser

Review November 09, 2019 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Stephen Sondheim practically reinvented modern musical theatre and lovers of his work often revere Follies as his crowning achievement.

But there are reasons that this 1971 Tony-Award winning Broadway show is staged less often than Sweeny Todd,  Gypsy, Company, Into the Woods and many of Sondheim’s other shows.

Follies’ premise – aged alumni of the Weisman (think Ziegfeld) Follies reunite at their derelict theatre to relive their youth and ponder their life choices just before the place is leveled for a parking lot – is challenging to stage for any theater because of the intermingling of time, but Theatre Nova carries it off.

This is to point out that Follies In Concert is an ambitious choice for Theatre Nova to undertake as a fundraiser.  The nonprofit, professional theatre is endeavoring to raise $15,000 with a Nov. 7-17 run to obtain a matching grant from the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The concert of the Sondheim music with flourishes of dramatic action reveal the lives of four main characters: the self-loathing Ben, the lonely Phyllis, the rejected Buddy and the disillusioned Sally.

Stripping away the original show’s gorgeous pageantry means that strong vocal performances must carry the show.  The score is difficult, with music that requires the performers to waft from nostalgia to introspection, often spewing mouths full of Sondheim’s quirky wordplay. It is challenging for some of the actors–any actors really. Sondheim has given us perhaps the most complex musical theater scores of any twentieth century composer.

All the action is oriented to the audience in front of the stage. (With this show in this space, it would be difficult to choreograph it otherwise.) The seats in front of the stage are the best to absorb this production.

Brian E. Buckner (multiple Wilde Award winner) music directs on an electric keyboard. Buckner is able to cast the musical footprint in the show of a three-piece combo. When all 14 cast members — plus Buckner — are on the tiny stage at once, the theatre can feel very intimate indeed.

Dramatic highlights of this show are “Losing My Mind,” a solo performed by Sue Booth, as Sally, and “Live, Laugh, Love” by Thomas Murphy, as Ben, and the ensemble.

Comic highlights are the rollicking “Buddy’s Blues” by Roy Sexton as the sad sack traveling salesman Buddy Plummer, and “I’m Still Here,” performed by Olive Hayden-Moore as Follies veteran Carlotta.

Diane Hill, who directs the play and co-stars as Phyllis Rogers Stone, also performs two of Follies’ funniest songs, “Could I Leave You” and “Lucy and Jessie” with spot-on comic timing.

Follies’ famous mirror number, “Who’s That Woman,” is given nice treatment by Carrie Jay Sayer, as showgirl Stella.

The most effective time-splicing number in the show is probably “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.”

Eddie Rothermel, Kryssy Becker, Connor Thomas Rhoades, and Annie Kordas do a fine job of portraying Ben and Phyllis, Buddy and Sally in their younger years.

This production of Follies In Concert may not be the grand ode to the golden age of Ziegfeld for which Sondheim was aiming, but seeing it, and taking in the marvelous tunes acted out is a fun night out that will help support a creative local theatre that has been a font of exciting new plays since its opening.

Week of 12/9/2019

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