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FOLLIES at The Moore produced by Showtunes! Theatre Company|
Finally, Bobbi Kotula as the old pro Carlotta brought down the house with her rendition of “I’m Still Here.” Powerfully and beautifully sung, the vocal performance was eclipsed by the depth and authenticity of the character, the intimacy and authority of the acting. This was the real deal and no one could deny it.
June 5, 2010
Showtunes, which specializes in concert performances of rarely produced, under-appreciated or nearly forgotten musicals, is one of the lesser-known treasures of Seattle theatre. Not only do they have superb taste in selecting shows, but they cast uniformly excellent professional talent and direct the performance, both musically and dramatically, to illuminate and revitalize these landmarks of musical theatre. Under their new artistic director, Martin Charnin, and in collaboration with Seattle Theatre Group, they have moved their performances from their previous home in Kirkland to the Moore Theatre downtown. Hopefully, that will draw a larger audience to these genuinely special events. With only two performances, those who got to see this production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” can count themselves truly privileged to have experienced brilliant, stunningly accomplished musical theatre in a production of rare and exemplary performance.
While the “concert” performance meant that there were no sets and the actors worked book in hand, the level of the acting and singing gave this show a full embodiment. In some ways, having to imagine the physical production of big musical numbers actually strengthened this show about theatre gone by, about stars who also had to lead lives away from the theatre, and about the deeply personal lives of public performers. It kept all of our attention on these human beings, and I think that is really where the spotlight on this superficially stagy show should be.
I suspect that one of the reasons why Sondheim's "Follies" is rarely produced is its demand for an sizable ensemble of very high-quality singer-actors, and the production costs of doing a show in which a large-scale, Ziegfeld-type stage production is the background. Set at a gathering for great female stars of the past, the action takes place at a party marking the end of decades of “Follies” productions, and at that party those women and their husbands encounter one another and the various roads not taken in their personal lives. Some would argue that its themes of lost love, broken marriages and debilitating ambitions are a bit too depressing, but they are also the inescapable matters of maturity and experience that make Sondheim's work so substantial, so adult and satisfying.
For the central conflict between Phyllis, who married Ben but probably should have married Buddy, and Sally, who married Buddy but is still in love with Ben, the roles could not have been better cast. Beth DeVries was terrific as Phyllis, a woman of sophistication who has paid the price for her worldliness in loneliness and hollow love. Ben is a successful diplomat whose youthful ambitions for position and wealth have been satisfied, but who finds only poverty and failure in his inner life. Michael Mendiola makes Ben pitiable but not pitiful, a man who has short-changed himself with superficial values.
Anna Lauris Boynton gives us a Sally who has come to terms with leaving the world of show-biz, but not with the daily reminder that she settled for love that was easy and insufficient. Bob DeDea makes Buddy a man whose decency and simplicity makes him easy to like, and also easy to understood why he was not enough for Sally, and why that failure is such a cruel and undeserved punishment.
All four of these players are wonderful singers. Boynton has the aching lament, “Losing My Mind” and DeVries performs “Could I Leave You” with so sharp an edge you feel like you could bleed. Mendiola surveys “The Road You Didn’t Take” with a sorrow as dry as an extra dry martini and DeDea makes “Buddy’s Blues” into a perfect expression of one man’s loss and no one’s gain. In all of these performers the exceptional quality of actors who can dramatize a song is the key to making the distinctive musical theatre of Sondheim really work.
Each of these characters is physically embodied by their younger selves on stage, as well, and Eric Ankrim, Michele Gray Ankrim, Katherine Strohmaier and Aaron Finley had a strong enough balance of vocal expertise and dramatic authenticity to seamlessly meld with their older characters. As for the other stars in this show, there was no question that each of these women was a star.
Ann Evans was all razzmatazz for her “Broadway Baby” and Rebecca Spencer was a Solange La Fitte who was all about grand European elegance; “Ah Paris” was a city barely grand enough to contain her. Ellen McLain joined with Megan Chenovick to blend their two beautiful voices as young and old Heidi for “One More Kiss,” in many ways an encapsulation of the show’s entire theme. Finally, Bobbi Kotula as the old pro Carlotta brought down the house with her rendition of “I’m Still Here.” Powerfully and beautifully sung, the vocal performance was eclipsed by the depth and authenticity of the character, the intimacy and authority of the acting. This was the real deal and no one could deny it.
When a company like Showtunes, with this abundance of talent and theatrical experience, brings to the stage a work of such mature, authentic, intimate drama it really reinforces how Sondheim raised the bar for all musical theatre to follow, and how deep the local talent pool is. It should also be a clear reminder for anyone who cares about the musical stage that Showtunes' next production, whatever it is, should not be missed.