If this production is any indication of The Rep’s 50th anniversary season, then St. Louis theatergoers are in store for a theatrical treat.
Before I get to my review of Follies, I want to congratulate The Rep on their 50th anniversary. Fifty years is a milestone for any business to achieve—but for a theatre, it something special. From starting off in 1966, as part of America’s regional theatre boom, to becoming a Midwest arts institution earns them a special moment of reflection and recognition.
The Rep kicks off their golden anniversary with Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s iconic Follies. The story is set in the declining Weismann Theatre, which is holding a reunion of all the gorgeous chorus girls that graced the stage through the years. There’s Sally Durant Plummer (Christine Noll) and Phyliss Rogers Stone (Emily Skinner) who both brought their husbands, Buddy Plummer (Adam Heller) and Benjamin Stone (Bradley Dean), respectively.
As the rest of the massive cast reminisce about their times at the theater, it becomes apparent that both of the main couples’ relationships are in decline just like the theater itself. Goldman utilizes younger versions of the couples to fill in the backstory of how the couples fell in love, how they followed their carnal urges, and how they ended up on the paths which led them to their future selves.
The production is technically demanding which may explain why Follies has only been performed in the Midwest a handful of times. While this may be a challenge for most theaters, the technical staff of The Rep made it look effortless as the oversized cast made their way on and off stage seamlessly while the story moved at a quick pace. Every aspect of the production was magnificent. From the set design to the costumes, to the choreography—every detail was simply exquisite. Scenic designer Luke Cantarella, costume designer Amy Clark, and choreographer Ralph Perkins (and their respective staffs) all deserve a standing ovation for their contributions to this production.
One other special acknowledgment goes to casting director Pat McCorkle, who assembled one of the finest ensemble casts I have ever seen in a production. This cast is special: such a remarkable combination of theatre veterans and fresh new faces, who worked together fantastically.
While the technical staff succeeded in each of their disciplines, the cast completely blew my mind with each of their outstanding performances. Carol Skarimbas as Heidi and Julie Hanson as Young Heidi shined during, “One More Kiss;” Dorothy Stanley as Emily Whitman and James Young as Theodore Whitman warmed our hearts with “Rain on the Roof;” and Amra-Faye Wright sensually sizzled in “Ah, Paris!”
Hearing Zoe Vonder Haar, as Hattie Walker, perform “Broadway Babies” will be a theatrical memory I will personally treasure for a lifetime. Nancy Opel as Carlotta Campion took the legendary song, “I’m Still Here” to another level with her gorgeous vocals and stunning stage presence. The ensemble number “Who’s That Woman?” led by E. Faye Butler as Stella Deems, brought the house down and deserved a standing ovation. From the way it was staged to the brilliant vocals of this impressive cast, this number could have been the crown jewel of the production.
While the ensemble shined in their individual and group numbers, the four main leads were equally as spectacular. Heller, as Buddy, had an impressive range. Whether he was serving as the comedic relief or showcasing his emotional depth, Heller completely nailed every aspect of his role. My favorite performance by this amazing actor was “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues.” Having to perform this song with the unusual prop he had to wield was impressive. Likewise, Dean, as Ben Stone, was equally as engaging. While he served up all the charm of Frank Sinatra, watching him have a complete emotional breakdown during “Live, Laugh, Love” was gut-wrenching. His performance of “Too Many Mornings” was highly enjoyable as the theatre was filled with his gorgeous vocals.
Noll’s performance of Sally was exceptional. While the actress is stunningly gorgeous, her vocals, dancing, and acting skills gave the role a sense of magnificence. Her portrayal of a woman in turmoil was brilliant. She seemed like she had it all together on the surface, but when she sang her torch songs, like “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Am I Losing My Mind,” her swirling storm of emotions illustrated how she was lost and looking to find her true self.
Skinner’s performance as Phyliss was mythical. I don’t use that word lightly, but this performance warrants the compliment. Skinner gave her role a sense of class, dignity, and emotional depth that cracked my cynical crust. Skinner had me in the palm from the moment she hit the stage in that jaw-dropping, gorgeous red gown that lovingly hugged her every curve. Her elocution was another aspect that I found endearing. She was serving Marsha Mason mixed with Jane Fonda—you don’t get that treat every day in the Midwest. Needless to say, her vocal performances were stunning. She performed the tongue twister, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” flawlessly while completely flooring me with her heart-stopping rendition of “Could I Leave You?” During the latter, Skinner summoned up the rage of every jilted, heart-broken, and fighting mad woman and unleashed it all in her performance making this song the highlight of the show.
To the younger cast accompanying these veterans, I salute you on each of your performances. You all did exceptionally well, and I look forward to seeing all of you in future productions—you are all stars.
I find it fitting that one icon (The Rep) pays homage to another icon such as Follies. If this production is any indication of The Rep’s 50th anniversary season, then St. Louis theatergoers are in store for a theatrical treat. My hat goes off to artistic director Steven Woolf and his entire team for continuing to raise the bar on quality theatre in the Midwest.
This production of Follies is not only recommended, it is compulsory for any patron of the theatre. Shows of this magnitude do not happen by accident and you would be remiss in not grabbing your tickets now. I may be fighting you in line for a repeat ticket; I must see this production again before the final curtain falls.
If this is what the first 50 years have been like for The Rep, the sky is the limit on what they can achieve in the next 50. | Jim Ryan
Follies runs at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through October 2. For ticket information, visit http://repstl.org/.
Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr.