By Ande Jacobson
(Originally appeared on Facebook on Sunday, March 6, 2011)
Tabard Theatre Company’s 10th season closes with Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies Concert Version, a rather bold departure from their usual family oriented faire. As Tabard’s Executive Director Cathy Spielberger Cassetta explains in her program note, this is a “Tabard Too!” production carrying a PG-13 rating. This is also a show that celebrates the magnificence of Broadway in a way that very few can.
First produced in 1971 and a seven-time Tony award winner, Follies comes in two flavors. The original is fully staged including a massive set, large cast, and full orchestra. Follies can also be performed in a concert version, which for Tabard’s intimate venue is a better fit, but even the concert version offers options. As was done in 1985, it could be presented using a full orchestra, but performed, book and all, in a true concert motif, with minimal staging. That’s not what Director, Diane Milo chose to do with Tabard’s current production. Milo takes a more theatrical approach and fully stages the show, but without the massive set, and, owing to venue constraints, utilizes a reduced cast and Music Director Judith Steinle’s three-piece musical combo in place of full orchestra. While the music purist will miss the depth and color of the score in this configuration, Steinle’s piano, bass, and drum trio aptly accompanies the on-stage performers in a lively evening’s entertainment.
Sondheim conceived Follies as a pastiche to the composers and lyricists who made Broadway great, paying homage to them in musical tribute through a reunion of the performers from the fictional Weismann Follies. They come together with their husbands and wives “one last time”, 30 years past their glory days before their theatre is to be torn down and replaced by a parking lot.
While each of the Weismann Follies performers in turn sings the musical number that made them great, Follies is primarily a character study. The action centers on four principal characters, two showgirls, Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers along with their husbands, Buddy Plummer and Benjamin Stone, but with a twist. They each have the ghost of their younger self shadowing them, and over the course of the evening, we learn about the start of their relationships, the betrayals and affairs, the rivalries, and the realities that made them who they are today as seen through their eyes, at present, from the past as their younger selves, and at times through a duality of past and present, present being 1971.
The Tabard set is simple, a sparsely populated stage containing a bar, a small drape, a platform upstage center, and three, tri-sided columns that provide cover for entrances and exits, and, when rotated, a transformation discussed later. In addition to the center platform, the steps along the front of the stage, and the house are used to provide a multilevel performance space.
Following Cassetta’s curtain speech, with house lights up, the cast starts arriving and mingling until Dimitri Weismann, played by Jeffrey Henson, calls the party to order, and the first full ensemble number ensues, Henson in his lyric tenor voice introducing us to the Weismann Girls, each in colorful party wear including a banner listing their premier year, and once assembled, four showgirls from the past costumed in muted beiges and pinks join in. The choreography, scaled back to fit the venue, still provides the feel of a large Broadway production number.
Next, the four principals, Ben, Sally, Buddy, and Phyllis, played by Tim Reynolds, Diane Milo, Kevin Kirby, and Jenifer Tice are introduced. Although Ben is married to Phyllis, and Buddy to Sally, mirroring the missteps in the relationships, the stage presence and chemistry is best between the non-paired couples, Reynolds with Milo and Kirby with Tice. The younger versions of Ben, Sally, Buddy, and Phyllis played by Josiah Frampton, Skye Wilson, Luke Anthony, and Ashley Bawdon are also introduced, appropriately costumed in the muted beiges and pinks of the past.
Initially distracting, there’s a significant relative height reversal between the Bens and Buddys although the chemistry between Reynolds and Frampton and between Kirby and Anthony make up for it.
Reynolds, Milo, Kirby, and Tice, all veteran performers, have multiple numbers throughout the show, too many to fully detail, but an especially nice bit of theatre occurs at the end of Act 1. In Too Many Mornings, Ben sings to Sally, or rather the ghost of Sally while Sally thinks he’s singing to her and answers having been in love with Ben all these years. Milo’s staging and vocal direction on this one are perfect, Reynolds holding Bawdon and singing to her, with Frampton and Milo upstage, separated, mirroring the motions of Ben and Young Sally. Buddy witnesses the end of this, setting up much of Act 2.
Of the strong supporting cast’s numbers breaking the tension between the principals, one is of particular note. One More Kiss from Act 2, sung by Heidi and Young Heidi, played by Elizabeth Finkler and Shelly Welch (who was inadvertently left off the cast list in the program). Their duet is exquisite, part in unison, part in counterpoint, an operatic piece that truly soars.
Starting Act 2, there’s a particularly well-played scene between Kirby and Anthony leading into and through Kirby’s The Right Girl, the song that gives us further insight into Buddy’s inner conflict between the girl he loves, and the one he married.
As the tension builds and marriages are on the verge of collapse in the midst of chaos early in Act 2, suddenly, the stage is transformed into Loveland, the Weismann extravaganza. This transition is decidedly low tech, but works extremely well using creative lighting, and rotating the aforementioned columns to create that dream world. Here, the past bursts into full color and showcases Frampton, Wilson, Anthony, and Bawdon on their own.
Following their junior selves, Kirby, Milo, Tice, and Reynolds each get their own fantasy number further revealing their characters’ thoughts. Kirby’s and Tice’s songs are comic with serious undertones, done well, in a fantasy style. Milo’s number is a torch song, and is very touching. Reynolds’ fantasy number is a true showcase for him, and he pulls off the most serious moment of the show, jarring us all back to reality, and final resolution.
While this is a solid show that will continue to grow as it fully gels, there are some issues worth mentioning, the single biggest being sound. The cast is exceptionally strong, and in a house of that size, would normally not need microphones, but owing to the location and outside interference, they mike the soloists. Unfortunately, there is a significant amount of popping and bleed-through, particularly among the strongest singers, who are often paired in duets. Also, on opening night of such a challenging Sondheim show, there were some missed lines and lyrics and a few pitch and timing mismatches in some particularly difficult passages, but those should settle out very quickly.
This is a production worth seeing and runs Thursdays-Sundays 4-27 March at Tabard’s Theatre on the Square at San Jose’s San Pedro Square.
See http://www.tabardtheatre.org/season10.html#show6 for more information.