The Players Centre for Performing Arts' latest production is a fun and nostalgic celebration of musical theater with a philosophical undertone.
Hamlet famously advised playwrights to “Hold a mirror up to nature.” Stephen Sondheim took his advice, but he used a funhouse mirror. You can see his reflections in “Follies” at The Players Centre for Performing Arts.
To give credit where it’s due, Sondheim is officially the composer and lyricist; James Goldman wrote the book. But the musical is Sondheim’s baby all the way — and captures his impressions of musical theater in the first third of his career. Now on with the show ...
The year is 1971. The Weisman Theatre (a stand-in for the Ziegfeld Follies) has a date with the wrecking ball in New York City. The aging impresario, Dimitri Weissman (Bob Fahey), invites the showgirls of yore for a reunion while it’s still standing. The dancers gather (accompanied by a few husbands) for a little song and dance.
Based on that premise, you might expect a light, fluffy musical stuffed with nostalgic fan service for fans of the theatrical good old days. It is. But it’s also a dark brooding philosophical meditation on loss, old age and the roads not traveled.
The play zeroes in on two couples. It takes eight actors to play them in two different seasons of life. The result is a poignant collision between youthful hope and fifty-something blues.
There’s Sally (Andrea Keddell), who married the two-timing Buddy (Ken Basque) but carried a lifelong torch for Ben (Tim Fitzgerald). They clash with Phyllis (K.J. Hatfield), who wound up with the wheeling-dealing Ben and climbed high in New York society but never had children. The couples’ middle-aged selves are mirrored by younger manifestations. Caroline Culbreath and Eli Gilbert embody Young Sally and Young Buddy. The shadows of Young Phyllis and Young Ben are played by Lauren Nielsen and Kenneth George. The younger and older manifestations spar and fall in and out of love in a weird double exposure of past and present.
Sondheim’s temporal doubling is a consistent motif throughout this musical. Jaimi McPeek periodically glides across the stage dressed in rags and feathers — the haunting, theatrical equivalent of The Ghost of Christmas Past. The blurring of past and present is also the heart of the show-stopping “Who’s That Woman?” number. Here, a troupe of older showgirls dance, accompanied by the ghosts of their younger selves. Each holds a mirror and doesn’t recognize the woman in the looking glass. Kudos to Susan Cole, Meg Newsome, Rita Mazer, Riselle Bain, Jeanne Larranaga, Linda Roeming and other Players veterans for bringing the sidelined showgirls to life.
Clever Sondheim ends the musical with a time-bending fantasy sequence. The final songs are a series of splashy production numbers that the Follies might’ve staged in its glory days. In a surreal twist, those songs are all about the aging characters in the here and now.
It’s sad, if you think about it. But, as heartbreaking as so many numbers are, director Jeffrey Kin doesn’t focus on the sadness. He tries to keep it fun. And succeeds. Although I imagine droves of theatergoers getting a sad expression in their eyes on the long drive home when Sondheim’s dark meditations sink in.
Charlie Logan and Logan Junkins’ choreography creates an old-fashioned vibe with a sprinkling of upbeat, contemporary touches. Shea O’Neil and Georgina Willmott’s costumes spark a nice contrast between the glitter of the past and the faded glories and pretensions of the present. Ken Junkins’ inventive set design evokes a broke-down palace from another era. His set also reveals the actual guts of the Players backstage area. The effect adds a jolt of reality to Sondheim’s dream of loss and memory. Brilliant.
If you’re looking for a dose of sentimentality, “Follies” delivers. If you feel like digging for deeper philosophical truth, you’ll find that too. This musical is a spoonful of sugar. But there’s strong medicine inside.
In the end, the two couples turn away from the road not traveled. They stick with the paths they’ve chosen so many years ago. Good choice — and it’s the only choice they have. Art isn’t eternal. Life isn’t either. And there’s no going back. That said, Sondheim’s musical offers one helpful suggestion …
Live, laugh, love.
And keep singing and dancing until the end of the road.
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