September 2, 2008

Sondheim’s 1971 ‘Follies’ Staged Quite Nicely in Concert Version

By Colin Dabkowski

If Facebook is still around in 30 years, there's no doubt the 25- year-olds of today will still log on to click through pictures of themselves lounging on the beach or drunk at a party, doing who- knows-what with I-can't-remember-whom.

It will be a digital version of the trap that everyone eventually falls into headfirst: nostalgia. And in 30 years, hopefully, we'll have another musical like "Follies" to tell us just how moronically we're acting.

The Shaw Festival, in the throes of its current summerlong Stephen Sondheim kick, premiered its concert version of the wistful 1971 musical Friday night to a full house in the Festival Theatre. It was a perfectly polished spectacle, lushly performed by a full onstage orchestra led by Paul Sportelli and sung with great spirit - - if a little too much restraint -- by a cast of 20.

The show, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book, such as it is, by James Goldman, takes place during a reunion of a group of Broadway dancers and singers from the heyday of lighthearted, vaudevillian theatrical productions a la "Ziegfeld Follies." It's cleverly constructed as a series of musical vignettes in which present-day performers in the doldrums of their present-day relationships sing and dance alongside younger and infinitely more naive versions of themselves.

The show contains some of the most inspired Sondheim lyrics and compositions, including "Broadway Baby,""Could I Leave You?,""I'm Still Here" and the torchiest of torch songs, "Losing My Mind."

While nicely (and partly) staged, this concert production of "Follies" seems to further alienate its already disparate stories from one another and make the absence of a plot even more deeply felt. In this milieu, it comes off more as musical experiment than musical, which in essence is exactly how it was originally conceived.

In the reams of critical commentary written about the show since its 1971 debut, the show has been described as everything from a nostalgia-soaked exercise in objectless narcissism to the defining musical of the 20th century. It's really neither, and in the Shaw's production it comes off as a grandiose object lesson in the dangers of glancing too far backward. It's an important lesson that, when passed through Sondheim's brilliant lyrics and wisely playful compositions, is made to seem a good deal more earth-shattering than it really is.

The show is helped along by many excellent performances, foremost of which comes straight from the ruby lips of Melanie Janzen as the dagger-tongued Phyllis. Janzen doesn't so much sing "Could I Leave You?" as chew it up like a bag of shrapnel and spit it out with lacerating accuracy. On the ingenue side of the spectrum, Gabrielle Jones belts out a "Broadway Baby" that must rank with the best, and Glynis Ranney (Sally) applies her sweet but maybe too lithe voice to a number of excellent songs. And the list goes on.

For a show that requires more than 50 actors in its fully staged version and the addition of mammoth sets and more than a few glittering costumes, it's clear why Shaw decided to mount "Follies" in concert form. In such an excellent production that still carries all the forgivable flaws of the original, that was probably the right choice.

It's well worth the trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake and runs for three more performances on Sept. 12, 27 and Oct. 4.

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"Follies: In Concert"

Friday as part of Shaw Festival in Festival Theatre, Niagara-on- the-Lake, Ont. Additional performances this Friday, Sept. 27 and Oct. 4.

Originally published by NEWS STAFF REVIEWER.

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