The Henegar Center for the Arts delivers what it promises with “Follies” – a production filled with beloved community theater veterans proving they’ve still got the stuff to stop a show.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman, “Follies” revolves around two unhappily married couples who gather at a reunion for former performers of revues by legendary fictional producer Dmitri Weissman. On the surface, they are there to spend the evening reminiscing through song and dance about the wonderful times they spent in the old theater, scheduled to be razed and turned into a parking lot the next day.
But the show digs much deeper than a Ziegfeld chorus line. Ghosts sit at the heart of “Follies.” Like a Greek chorus, phantom leggy showgirls hover eerily upstage, moving like feathers on slow currents of air. Younger alter egos shadow the old performers, re-enacting pivotal life moments. And, like a good Ibsen drama, these ghosts from the past nag at the present-day couples, who ache over the real follies in their own lives.
Buddy loves his wife, Sally, who loves Ben, the husband of her once-upon-a-time best friend, Phyllis, who wants a divorce from Ben, who sleeps around. The tension among the foursome rises, blurring the line between the younger selves and the older selves.
Like some other Sondheim musicals (especially “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods”) the first act ends with the truth laid bare, making way for a second act rife with biting sarcasm, irony and eventual poignant capitulation.
Directed smartly by Joan Taddie, these themes bloom powerfully. The chatty first act pops with some show-stopping numbers. But that second act? Watch out. Like “Into the Woods,” you think you’ve come for some big show tunes (and you do get them), but that second act delivers an emotional wallop, giving the production its resonance.
Christine Manning Brandt shines as Sally. She nails the Sondheim score and lyrics, delivering a multi-layered interpretation to “In Buddy’s Eyes.” Singing the song to Ben, the song isn’t about how lucky she is to have a husband who sees her in such a beautiful light. It’s about her denying real feelings and convincing herself that she’s happy enough with his love. And in the second act, Ms. Brandt delivers the knock-out punch with her sensationally sung “Losing My Mind.”
Hank Rion (the Henegar’s new incoming artistic director) paints such a likeable picture of Buddy. We see his character ache over loving a wife who does not return the emotion and actually feel sorry for him when he cheats on her. He wows the audience in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues,” a vaudeville style number expertly delivered and, yes, rather evocative of a John C. Reilly’s “Mr. Cellophane” in the movie “Chicago.”
Jack Maloney finds the duality to Ben, showing him as a broken man without love. In “Live, Laugh, Love,” we see the character as a man who has found financial success, but missed the mark at personal success.
As both Phyllis and the show’s choreographer, Debbie Rappa Crisafulli dishes her ample talent all over the production. She brings out multiple sides to Phyllis, making her at once condescending and warm, resigned and strong. Her solo dance in the second act will leave you limp. And, the complex dances she has designed throughout sparkle with energy and variety.
One of the best of those numbers is the first act climax, when a fun and ravishing Rita Moreno enlivens the stage in “Who’s That Woman?” In it, the entire cast of showgirls perform a complex tap-dance routine during which their younger counterparts weave in and out of the routine.
Conductor Mark P. Nelson brings out a strong orchestral accompaniment. He and the orchestra really showed their performing mettle on opening night when lines were forgotten. They didn’t lose a beat and instead rescued the performer, showing the important collaborative nature of live theater.
David M. Robertson’s scenic design is oh-so-smart and artistic. With a few elegant painterly gestures, he creates a drab, run down theater which, at the flip of a counterweight, turns into a vivid, lively venue.
Bryce Niehaus’ lighting design is appropriately moody, although, on opening night, too often an actor’s face was left darkened. And the team of costumers gather colorful steam for the second act.
There are so many standouts in this show. You’ll just have to go see it and pick up a program to read all their names. A production of “Follies” becomes legend. That will be the case for the Henegar. The show is smart, entertaining and a grand showcase for some of Brevard’s best community theater talent.
Side O’ Grits: “Follies” runs through Feb. 3 at the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Curtain is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $16 to $23. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.henegar.org.