Entertainment

Rep raises the bar with Sondheim’s ‘Follies’

The women of “Follies” which is playing at the Repertory Theatre through Oct. 2
The women of “Follies” which is playing at the Repertory Theatre through Oct. 2

Nostalgia and alcohol fuel regrets, grudges and dashed dreams in Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated masterwork “Follies.”

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has gilded this hothouse flower to deliver one of its finest achievements ever.

This big and bravura production glistens with knockout performances and artful elegance — a sumptuous spectacle sharpened with a vibrant intimacy.

The cast of 28, including three Tony nominees, revels in Ralph Perkins’ sensational choreography, music supervisor Brad Haak’s lush orchestration of a landmark musical score, Amy Clark’s lavish costumes and superb technical elements.

With laser-beam focus, director Rob Ruggiero zeroed in on the details and heightened the emotions for a multi-layered take on how the present is shaped by a past no one can really bury.

Ruggiero’s flair for interpreting composer Sondheim’s articulate lyrics was on display in the Rep’s triumphant “Sunday in the Park with George” in 2012. In his eighth mainstage production for The Rep, he has capably tackled the daunting size and scope of this monumental, challenging work.

Scenes flow seamlessly and mercurial moods established in then-and-now scenes that resonate, intensifying the drama in Ruggiero’s crisply staged show.

The joy of being part of the Weismann Follies from 1918 to 1941 hasn’t faded for the graceful showgirls who gather for a 30th reunion at the once-opulent theater.

It’s 1971, and the dilapidated palace will be replaced by a parking lot. Ethereal ghosts wander in the shadows while the former stars relive their glory days between the World Wars.

The “Beautiful Girls” cascade down the staircase. From their perspective, loss and change are constant.

During this one evening, friends are re-acquainted, experiences reminisced. Memories come flooding back. Romantic complications are revealed. Anger gives way to resignation. Disappointments resurface.

The vehicle’s sly construction examines lives and exposes the consequences of our actions while highlighting relics from yesteryear. The acting demands are significant.

Ruggiero has worked with Haak and Perkins before at The Muny, reinvigorating such classics as “South Pacific” and “Hello, Dolly” in recent years, and this collaboration is another finely tuned effort.

The book, rewritten several times by playwright James Goldman (“The Lion in Winter”), centers on two conflicted couples — chorus girls Phyllis and Sally, who married their wartime sweethearts Ben and Buddy.

Nervously perky, Sally is still carrying the torch for handsome Ben, now shiny with wealth and success. She has been miserable for years with traveling salesman Buddy, who desperately clings, eager for reconnection.

Meanwhile, restless carouser Ben is unhappy with unfaithful Phyllis, and the old wounds re-open, agitated by vitriol and boozy confessions.

Their carefree younger selves are revealed in flashbacks, including a game-changer that affected their adulthood.

In a clever flip on the definition of “folly/follies,” Act II’s glitzy showbiz numbers in “Loveland” disclose the quartet’s inner thoughts in the period style of vaudeville skits and songs.

The show’s visually stunning look is enhanced by lighting designer John Lasiter, sound designer Randy Hansen and scenic designer Luke Cantarella. They impeccably illuminate the bygone dream of perfection, hollow illusions and the stark reality of truth.

Tony nominee Emily Skinner (“Side Show”), dripping with bitterness as the jaded Phyllis, firmly strides across the stage, earning laughs with well-timed phrases, and admiration for her silky voice and potent rendition of “Could I Leave You?” She was last seen demonstrating her powerful pipes as Dorothy Brock in The Muny’s “42nd Street.”

Tony nominee Christiane Noll (“Ragtime”) doesn’t fare as well as the neurotic Sally, who still looks youthful but is transparently delusional in a self-destructive way. She elected to only show the girlish side. Nevertheless, she slays her torch song “Losing My Mind” and the rueful “Too Many Mornings” duet with Ben.

Adam Heller, seen in “Brighton Beach Memories” four years ago, is effective as the confused Buddy, whom others view as weak but actually gets stronger throughout the night.

Broadway vet Bradley Dean seems miscast as Ben, and is the weakest link in the foursome. The character gets by on his charm until everything unravels, but Dean’s acting needed more dimensions.

However, the younger versions offer dynamic portraits — Sarah Quinn Taylor and Kathryn Boswell dazzle as the fresh-faced Sally and Phyllis, and Michael Williams and Cody Williams are robust as the energetic Ben and Buddy. They are terrific in “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” and offer youthful hope and optimism in “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”/”Love Will See Us Through.”

Sondheim created pastiches of the songwriting icons of yesteryear — Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and the imitated rhythms are flattering. The intricacies of his ballads and the cleverness of his patter songs display his undeniable genius.

Grand old dames get their moments to shine in recognizable standards. As five-time married Hattie, chipper Zoe Vonder Haar is peppery in the blockbuster solo “Broadway Baby” while as the refined Heidi, Carole Skarimbas sparkles in the touching “One Last Kiss,” alongside her young Heidi ghost Julie Hanson.

The big showstopper is Nancy Opel’s tour-de-force rendition of “I’m Still Here,” the ultimate survivor song. She brought down the house as the world-weary TV and movie star Carlotta reflects on her ups and downs. Tony nominated for “Urinetown,” Opel appeared as Yente in The Muny’s “Fiddler on the Roof” this summer — and her range is impressive.

A group number standout is an eye-popping “Who’s That Woman?”, led by the exuberant E. Faye Butler, where the golden girls merrily tap with their silvery teen reflections while moving around big mirrors.

Legendary Michael Bennett (“A Chorus Line”) devised the original, which remains one of the best dance numbers ever. It is among the tops this year locally — along with The Muny’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “We’re in the Money” and “42nd Street” curtain call.

Local favorites Joneal Joplin and Ron Himes are smooth as impresario Dimitri Weismann and Stella’s life and dance partner Max.

While the musical won seven Tony Awards after its 1971 debut — it was nominated for 11 — mixed reaction always has labeled it chilly, despite its kudos for ambition and innovation, even with several lauded revivals.

To bring out the human foibles while ramping up the splendor of a bygone era is a tough task, but The Rep has managed to make it feel personal.

Not seen professionally in St. Louis since the Broadway cast came to the Muny for a week in 1972, “Follies” reaffirms its majestic qualities.

When you see this show at a certain age, the adult topics strike a chord. Some people get stuck in the past, while others move forward. As the characters look back, we can relate.

Whether you come in as a neophyte or seasoned senior, you can marvel at the show’s enduring beauty and extraordinary insightful presentation.

With a discernible vitality, the Rep has raised the bar yet again, and that bodes well for the next milestones to come. The cheering ovations are well-deserved. You don’t want to miss this special show, for it will be described in glowing superlatives for years.

“Follies”

Where: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves

When: Now through Oct. 2

Information: 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org

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