Among Stephen Sondheim fans, it's already being called "the other 'Follies.'" When Gary Griffin and Chicago Shakespeare Theater began making plans for a major Chicago revival of the 1971 musical (book by James Goldman, music and lyrics by Sondheim) about a bittersweet reunion of former showgirls, they'd no idea that director Eric Schaeffer's Kennedy Center revival would attract megawatt talent like Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige, let alone move to Broadway and catch fire.
"Follies," a massive undertaking for Chicago Shakespeare, was designed to be a marquee attraction for the company's 25th anniversary season. "We started a year and a half ago in our planning," Griffin said over breakfast recently. "We had no idea there would be this massive Broadway revival happening."
Then again, that's not entirely a bad thing for Griffin's production, which started previews this week and opens officially Wednesday. Not only is Sondheim himself seemingly everywhere this fall (he and I will have a Chicago Humanities Festival conversation Nov. 6), but the Broadway "Follies" has ignited a great deal of interest in every last nuance of this piece.
That's not surprising. Even among Sondheim musicals, this particular title is special, given its signature Sondheim numbers and the potent themes of sadness, nostalgia and regret. "Follies" has never been a show for the young. At this point, with Sondheim's status as a legendary figure now etched in a kind of concrete that had not yet set in 1971, many of the show's most fervent fans are living some version of the reality of the characters. Interest in "Follies" has never been more acute.
And the director of the piece is, after all, Griffin, a director of national note whose production of "Pacific Overtures" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater was a signature event for Sondheim lovers everywhere.
So what's he going to do with this baby?
For one, he will be working on a thrust stage, rather than the proscenium arch of the Marquis Theatre on Broadway.
"This is a party happening inside a theater," Griffin said. "We want to take the audience inside it. That's something you can do in our theater." That's true, and it would give the production a different emphasis than Schaeffer's take, where the reality of the party very much plays second fiddle to the sepia-toned memories.
Griffin also said that he plans to take the dance out on the thrust stage. He has a record of doing that; Griffin's Stratford production of "West Side Story" was notable for the way the original Jerome Robbins choreography played in the Festival Theatre, where it moved closer to the audience. And with the exception of "West Side Story," there's no Sondheim show where dance is more important than "Follies."
Chicago Shakespeare will not have the full-size orchestra that played so beautifully at the Marquis; there will 12 players on Navy Pier. But Griffin notes that a follies-type orchestra would, in actuality, have been closer to a dozen than the 25 or so players you find on Broadway. The Chicago Shakespeare production will use fresh orchestrations and the instruments will all be acoustic.
And then there is the cast, which includes such longtime Chicago stars as Susan Moniz as Sally and Hollis Resnik as Carlotta. This is not all a Chicago-based cast; Caroline O'Connor plays Phyllis, a crucial, tough-to-cast role, and Brent Barrett is the just-as-crucial Benjamin.
The casting of Moniz was especially interesting to some — about five minutes ago, it feels, she was playing ingenues at the Marriott Theatre. But that, of course, is the whole point of "Follies." These changes creep up on you. The extent to which Moniz and Resnik confront the demons of time passing will likely go a long way to defining how successful this production will be.
For sure, they have some tough Broadway acts to beat.
But then we all deal with this stuff in our own ways. "It was quite a moving thing watching actors come in and audition for these roles," Griffin said. "People were like, 'Oh, I'm not at the point where I get called in for that. And in rehearsals, it's been interesting to watch the different ways in which people negotiate that."
Ah yes, the that. At the end of the night, you can stage it one way or another, play it on a dozen instruments or power up twice that number. "Follies" is about our inability to stop the debilitating passage of time.
"People have always told me to be careful of doing 'Follies,'" Griffin said, looking tired. "They say your life will fall apart."
Follies runs through Nov. 6 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier; $44-$75 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com
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