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Grown-up musical takes toll on the heart

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The once-glamorous, strutting showgirls of Broadway's Ziegfeld era can still manage a high kick to the gut in Follies, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's aching exploration of middle-age regret and broken dreams.

It's a grown-up musical that is hard on the heart, as Sondheim digs unbearably deep into the anguish of two brittle marriages shattered by bitterness. The title does not only recall the classic revues of a bygone era but the deceptive illusions that men and women harbour and the mistakes they make. Follies can also refer to the inevitable missteps taken in staging this beast of a production.

It all takes place on the happy occasion of a 1971 reunion party thrown by an old impresario who wants to celebrate an end of an era in his soon-to-be-demolished theatre by bringing back his aging stars. The middle-aged dames make a grand entrance wearing their commemorative sashes emblazoned with the year in the '20s, '30s and '40s, when they were on top. The joyful evening of re-acquiantance hits a bump when two mismatched couples, once best friends, meet again. Sally (Donna Fletcher) and Phyllis (Brenda Gorlick) and their plus-ones, stage-door Johnnies who became their jaded husbands Buddy (Carson Nattrass) and Ben (Doug McKeag), make nice briefly before the old scabs are ripped off. The sweetly fragile Sally still carries a flame -- actually more like a five-alarm fire -- for Ben, a smooth-talking one-time politician, a situation that enrages the long-suffering Buddy and bemuses Phyllis.

In Goldman's book, the foursome is literally haunted by their past, personified by the occasional presence of the ghosts of their younger selves who serve to connect the differences between now and then, youth and age, reality and fantasy. They mostly keep their distance, but Sally finds herself in the arms of young Ben, with whom she fell in love 30 years ago.

Follies is not plot-heavy -- so much of Sondheim's gem-packed score underscores the wounded mood that permeates much of the 150-minute evening. The respite from the domestic strife comes when the one-time stars blow the dust off their old specialty numbers one last time.

The Dry Cold Production has assembled a powerhouse local female cast whose collective years of service to the stage would be an eye-popping number. Each gets a signature song. Fletcher, well-seasoned in Sondheim, delivers the most moving moment with an aching, almost teary Losing My Mind, although her glamorous portrayal of Sally is nowhere near that of a dowdy housewife she is supposed to be. Jan Skene's anthem I'm Still Here builds nicely but could use a touch more defiance. Gorlick is superb with her angry Could I Leave You?.

As the brassy Stella, Debbie Maslowsky successfully leads the show's biggest dance number, which earned the loudest ovation from the sold-out Berney Theatre audience. Perhaps director Reid Harrison should have had them struggle a little more so the ghosts they, too are supposed to have, could show them how they used to do it. Without the apparitions, the tap dance comes across as a celebratory "we-survived" scene.

What's missing is on display in a scene with Heidi (Phyllis Thomson), the only other former star to get an angel. Thomson sings One More Kiss but is soon taken over by her younger, golden-throated self (a stunning cameo by Lara Ciekiewicz) to vividly show the ravages of time on a voice.

The leading men were both strong, McKeag as the emotionally distant Ben who is devastated that he has lived his life wrong. His Too Many Mornings closes the first act on a high note. Nattrass brings his character's pent-up anger to manic and comic heights in his impressive Loveland sequence Buddy's Blues.

Follies is an exhilarating experience despite any production shortfalls; perhaps it is advisable to make it your final experience with SondheimFest, with the master playwright serenading us to take to heart his closing musical urging, Live, Laugh, Love.

Theatre review


Dry Cold Productions

To Sunday at Berney Theatre

Tickets: $25 at 204-477-7478

Three and a half stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 G6

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