A successful Sondheim; Toby's Dinner Theatre does well with production of the musical 'Follies'


Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" is much admired but seldom revived, and the production at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia gives you a good idea of just how wonderful and difficult this 1971 musical can be.

"Follies" is nothing if not theatrical: Old Follies stars reunite at a decaying theater as younger versions of themselves pop in and out of the action.

The storytelling is unusually complex, at least by the standards of Broadway musicals, but it's an effective way to attack the themes of memory and regret.

The concept (book by James Goldman, music and lyrics by Sondheim) feels extremely bright from start to finish.

Ghosts of chorus girls in big headdresses and revealing beaded gowns glide across the stage as two time periods are established: the glory days of the Follies, and a time roughly 30 years later, as the theater is about to be torn down.

The standards "Broadway Baby" and "I'm Still Here" are among the many gems in Sondheim's terrific score, most of which are sung here with triumphant spirit by the seasoned cast.

Sondheim's music is majestic and nostalgic, and the lyrics are sometimes touching, sometimes angry and cutting.

The challenging music ranges from vaudeville specialty numbers ("The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues") to dark, bitter love songs ("Could I Leave You," "Losing My Mind").

So what do you need to bring off this bear of a show? Veteran performers who have the charisma to deliver broad vaudeville numbers and the introspection to handle Sondheim's reflective lyrics.

An orchestra that can purr and roar. A director who can tell the story cleanly. A dash of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. Not much to ask, is it?

Director Toby Orenstein's production doesn't overwhelm you with old-time Follies spectacle (despite a bevy of leggy chorines and Norah Shaw's flashy costumes), nor do the performers blow you away.

However, the plot lines are clear, musical director Douglas Lawler's small orchestra is often better than serviceable, and the show has a gutsy, been-around-the-block quality that helps get to the unhappy heart of the story.

It seems that none of the four principal characters are satisfied with how their lives have turned out.

Benjamin Stone (Jason Fulmer, projecting financial success and nagging dissatisfaction) throws his life into question in "The Road You Didn't Take."

His wife, Phyllis (played with a regal bearing and a tart tongue by Penny Friesland), has made herself into an elegant society wife -- "Ah, But Underneath," she sings in an Act II song, it's a different story.

Johnny Holliday's Buddy is torn between Sally (his wife) and another woman. Holliday's frustrated eruptions and the stone cold confusion on his face during "The Right Girl" are surprisingly poignant.

As Sally (whose real romantic choice is Ben, not Buddy, then and now), Patricia Pearce Gentry blends melancholy with hope.

You can see sadness in her smile, which as Gentry sweetly sings "Losing My Mind," melts to despair -- a wistful mixture that is the very face of this thoughtful "Follies."

Pub Date: 9/23/99

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