What a gold mine Cleveland has in the musical theater program at Baldwin Wallace University. Such is the power and professionalism of its production of “Follies,” I had to keep reminding myself that this was a college show.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman, the 1971 musical couples show-biz nostalgia with the neuroses of modern angst. Created in an era of disillusionment over the Vietnam War and Watergate, the musical, considered revolutionary at the time, also rings true in our own uncertain era.
A huge cast, lavish costumes, amorphous plot, intricately layered songs and elaborate theatrical set pieces make “Follies” a bear to pull off. All of which makes the vibrant Baldwin-Wallace production even more astonishing, its 41- member student cast spliced with seven faculty cameo performances.
It features Victoria Bussert’s mesmerizing direction and triple threats who sing, act and dance with such expertise I never realized that the principal leads were student actors until after the show ended.
An old theater is about to be torn down and Dimitri Weismann (Dr. Jack Winget) has convened a reunion of his former chorus girls for a final tribute. As the aging performers relive their younger showgirl selves, the fantasies of the past sharply contrast with the painful realities of the present.
The plot centers on Sally (Clare Hoews Eisentrout) and Phyllis, (Ciara Renee), best friends and roommates. They were stage-struck chorines who married their stage-door Johnnies, Buddy (James Penca) and Ben (Alex Syiek), and lived unhappily ever after.
The story of the two couples, soured by marriage and life, unfolds against a backdrop of reminiscence. Memories come to vivid life in the form of their younger counterparts. The second half of the two-hour show, presented without intermission, is a Follies extravaganza, a series of vaudevillian acts – with a dollop of Freud – that lays human follies bare.
The brilliant “Follies,” which some consider the best musical ever written, functions on several levels. It’s a tribute to the theatre and the glory days of the Ziegfeld Follies, which produced vaudevillian extravaganzas between the two world wars. It’s also about the perils and pitfalls of nostalgia, youthful dreams versus middle-age disappointment, the specter of mortality, and the lies people tell.
The shadowy presence of Follies girls drifts across the stage like a ghost of the past.
Under Bussert’s watchful direction, the older actors and their younger counterparts mesh seamlessly from the outset.
First to appear is Sally, giddy as a schoolgirl. Sally loved Ben, who used her and then chose Phyllis. Sally married Buddy on the rebound.
The reunion has rekindled Sally’s love for Ben; all sense of reality is displaced by Sally’s fantasy that Ben will love her again and marry her this time. Eisentrout’s moving rendition of Sally’s bittersweet torch song, “Losing My Mind,” sizzles.
Buddy worships Sally but his yearning for normalcy and a woman who loves him in return forces him into the arms of another. Penca’s angry, regret-filled Buddy sings “The Right Girl,” torn between the woman he loves and the lover he needs.
Renee’s Phyllis is a brittle, bitter, hard-edged woman who can’t live with Ben or without him in the cynical “Could I Leave You?” Syiek’s emotionally hollow Ben wonders if he made the right choices in his rueful “The Road You Didn’t Take”
“Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” is a wonderful group number intertwining the older couples with their younger counterparts: Young Sally (Emily Prentice), Young Phyllis (Keri Rene Fuller), Young Ben (Chris McCarrell), and Young Buddy (John Kramer).
Nyla Watson has a beautiful face, deep, rich voice and a personality to match. She is outstanding as Carlotta Campion, a former showgirl turned TV star whose torch song, “I’m Still Here,” is a tale of adaptation and survival.
Gregory Daniels’ inventive choreography sparkles in “Who’s That Woman?” a rousing company tap number performed with mirrors and led by Stella Deems (Sophie Brown) in which the older women dance with their youthful reflections. Conductor Steven Gross and orchestra amply present Sondheim’s lush and hypnotic score.
Neuroses peak when the older characters play a blame game, railing against their younger selves for their messed-up lives.
The caustic first half turns into “Loveland,” parodying the neuroses of the first part in the style of a variety show. It’s the highlight of the production with to-die-for costumes by Charlotte M. Yetman and dazzling hoofing choreographed by Daniels.
When the party comes to a shattering conclusion, the characters must pick up the pieces of their broken lives and look to a more hopeful future. As Phyllis says, “Hope doesn’t grow on trees. We’ll make our own. It’s the hardest thing we’ll do.”
Who needs Broadway with Baldwin Wallace in our backyard?
WHERE: Kleist Center for Art and Drama, 95 E. Bagley Road, Baldwin Wallace University, Berea
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 18
TICKETS & INFO: 440-826-2240