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BWW Reviews: Here's to the Ladies Upstairs! FOLLIES is First Rate at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

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Second City, shmeckend city. Chicago Shakespeare's riveting and moving production of "Follies" is second to none.   

The show's many moments of longing and regret for both the paths chosen and those that were missed are usually played out with glitter and glitz; pathos is paraded before you upon various vaudeville vehicles. Here, it's just greasepaint. There are sets and costumes, to be sure. But the moments that define the show are made more profoundly intimate because, for the most part, the show business shell has been stripped away.

Is it at times uncomfortable? You bet.   

Time is a hurricane which will end up blowing most of us into obscurity. The merits of our personal character lay not in how we prepare for the inevitable storm, but rather how we survive in its aftermath.

The show's premise has a group of former second tier showgirls of the famed "Weissmann Follies" (a fictitious version of the"Zeigfield Follies") and their husbands (a few of them former stage door Johnnies) reuniting in 1971 on the eve of the destruction by wrecking ball of the theater that once housed so many of their hopes and dreams.

When the show first premiered in 1971, Broadway's own future seemed dim. The hard working dancers of "A Chorus Line" had yet to strap on their leg warmers and the optimism of a certain little red-haired orphan was still several tomorrows away. Many theaters around the country did in fact become parking lots. Chicagoans need only look to the former site of the once majestic Grenada Theatre -now home to student housing, a bank and a sandwich shop among other things (though, to be far, the Grenada was a grand movie palace, not a conventional theater space, but the cultural loss remains).

Therere is perhaps no better director able to find fresh and new subtle nuances in a revival of a classic work of musical theater than Gary Griffin.  In his skilled hands, the show, once a loving albeit premature eulogy to the American Broadway musical, remains relevant in our youth-obsessed culture with its short attention span, existing as a smart, respectful love letter to Golden Age musical traditions that keenly encourages theatergoers to look with optimism.

At the core of the show are a pair of deeply troubled marriages. The mentally unstable Sally (Susan Moniz) still carries a flame for her old love. Her former stage door johnny husband Buddy  still adores his wife, but has begun to seek out comfort in other pastures (Robert Petkoff). Sally's former roommate Phyllis (a sensational Caroline O'Conner) and the dashing rogue Benjamin (Brent Barrett) are also equally unhappily married. Phyllis has grown bitter as Benjamin all but ignores her as he continually searching for the one love that will make him complete.

Some of the former showgirls ignite the scene. Marilynn Bogetich belts out"Broadway Baby" with great star power, giving the audience a taste of a bygone glamour while all the while wearing orthopedic shoes. Nancy Voigts is also engaging in"Who's That Woman."

Hollis Resnik, one of Chicago's greatest theater treasures, also doesn't disappoint as the aging cougar Carlotta. The lone showgirl of the group to still be in the business (albeit "slumming" in a television series), Resnik conveys all of the triumph and heartache from years in show business in the show-stopper "I'm Still Here."

In a show filled with so much star power,  O'Conner is perhaps most memorable, however. She ferociously attacks "Could I Leave You?" with all the appropriate anger necessitated by the song lyrics and seems virtually unstoppable in the dancing and singing number "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."  O'Conner rightfully deserves a Jeff award for her work in this show.

"Follies" is not without a misstep, though. "Live, Laugh, Love," Barrett's second act number, seems to borrow too "razzle dazzle" from "Chicago" that it pulls you out of the moment.  

Still, it is but a momentary distraction in a production that otherwise is top-notch.

"Follies" is now playing through Nov. 13 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Courtyard Theater, 800 E. Grand. Tickets, $55-$75. Call (312) 595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com/follies.

 


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