Now when you think Chicago Shakespeare, what comes to mind? Is it aging vaudevilians getting sauced in a broken down theater, cheating on their wives and husbands, and breaking into song? Well, if that wasn’t your thought, perhaps there is something wrong with you.
The regional Tony award-winning theater known for its updating of the Bard’s work, as well as bringing international companies to Chicago to perform, has started off its season with the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Follies.” This is the tale of the cast of the Weismann Follies, who, in 1971, have returned to the theater in New York where they sang, danced, performed slapstick, and couldn’t keep their hands off each other. 30 years after the Follies closed, the theater itself is set to be demolished, and the the performers are having one last get together to relive the memories, drink a lot of booze, get felt up by butlers and cabaret boys, and perform their big numbers.
The story revolves the 4 friends Sally and Buddy, Ben and Phyllis, who met here, fell in love, got married, and have returned with their marriages on the rocks. Throught the night, they reveal their true feelings, and decide whom they will be going home with on this night.
The production was astonishing. Director Gary Griffin has made a play that happens to have music. The acting is so strong across the board, but Caroline O’Connor as Phyllis is a force. She belts her song “Could I leave You” with such feelling that it is both funny and intimidating. She burns up the floor in the second act, showing the skills that have made her a Broadway star for years.
Griffin has taken the stage and created a world both reality and fantasy. The play begins with an angelic lead flapper, who enters the space, and effectively allows the world of the Follies to enter. The stage is a busted down theater that once captured the imagination, but has fallen on hard times. The entertainment of the Follies act as a vehicle for the characters to express their deepest regrets. Susan Moniz as Sally goes from a bubbly ingenue still holding onto hope for a lost love, to a scorned songstress in her version of “Losing My Mind.”
Robert Petkoff as Buddy, the good guy trying to do the right thing, only to realize he has a one sided marriage, brings the tragedy in “The Right Girl,” and the comedy in “Buddy’s Blues.” Brent Barret, the performer turned politician, who is mired in a loveless marriage, is able to seduce Sally once more with “Too Many Mornings,” and emaotionally fall to pieces in “Live, Laugh, Love.” These characters are confronted with memory, but, as the play seems to say, memory is often how one chooses to remember it.
The show also plays with time, as th younger versions of the four lovers, flow in and out of the party, showing the truth of where these four went wrong. Adrian Aguilar as Young Ben, Andrew Keltz as young Buddy, Rachel Cantor as Phyllis and L. R. Davidson as Sally are wonderful, showing the foursome while they still had their lives ahead of them.
I felt as if I was in New York watching a Broadway show. If you want the next best thing (without Broadway prices), go see this show.