Iconic “Follies” Opens Rep’s 50th With Beautiful Girls, Beautiful Story, Beautiful Music

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Emily Skinner as Phyllis and Christiane Noll as Sally in “Follies” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

This is it, folks- you’re into the “Follies” and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (opening their 50th season) brings all the thrills and chills of this bigger-than-life musical to grand and glorious life. Stephen Sondheim’s signature masterpiece doesn’t get performed often because of the scope and breadth of this show but, after 50 years of waiting (and fewer years of my wife nagging Rep Artistic Director Steve Woolf), “Follies” has finally arrived and St. Louis is in for a treat.

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E. Faye Butler leads the ladies in “Who’s That Lady?” during “Follies” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

With a wonderful mix of Broadway vets and local talent, the cast of “Follies” is nothing short of incredible. With a lengthy string of Tony nominations and wins, this cast is like a who’s who of the Broadway community. Emily Skinner and Christiane Noll lead the way as Phyllis and Sally- the two rivals in the old days of the Follies and now reuniting at the theatre as it is on the brink of being torn down for a parking lot. Sally loved Ben who is now married to Phyllis while Sally married Buddy who was part of that foursome who acted together on stage and double dated after just about every performance.

Meanwhile Ben Stone (Bradley Dean) still has a soft spot for Sally but, as we find out, he has a soft spot for almost anyone in a skirt. Adam Heller is Buddy and he reluctantly comes to the reunion because he knows the romance between Sally and Ben will probably reignite. All of the principles get to shine in solo numbers and production numbers alike.

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Christiane Noll sings the heart breaking “Losing My Mind” during “Follies” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Emily Skinner simply sizzles as she confronts Ben with “Could I Leave You?” and then knocks us dead during the “Loveland” sequence with “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” During that marvelous pastiche in Loveland, Christiane Noll drops the mike (figuratively) with one of Sondheim’s most tragic love songs, “Losing My Mind” and also teams up with Bradley Dean in the moving first act closer, “Too Many Mornings.” Adam Heller delights with his unrequited love songs, “The Right Girl” and “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” during his “folly” in the loveland numbers. Bradley Dean expresses concern in “The Road You Didn’t Take” and then gets that moving finale which- I remember- threw the opening night crowds during the original run of the show on Broadway as he faltered during the big finish, “Live, Laugh, Love.”

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Bradley Dean and Emily Skinner as Ben and Phyllis at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Sondheim’s “Follies.” ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

The other ladies of the Follies are well represented by a bevy of Broadway and regional theatre sensations including Nancy Opel who blows us away as Carlotta with the iconic “I’m Still Here” and Amra-Faye Wright as the French beauty, Solange and her rendition of “Ah, Paris!” E. Faye Butler leads the ladies in the fast-paced “Who’s That Woman?” and local favorite, Zoe Vonder Haar lifts the lid off the Rep with her animated “Broadway Baby.” Dorothy Stanley and James Young also shine as “patter partners” in the soft shoe number, “Rain On The Roof.” Finally, Carol Skarimbas as Heidi and Julie Hanson as her younger self, bring the beautiful “One More Kiss” to glorious life.

With the 30 year reunion, the ghosts of the past are a prominent part of the show. With special lighting and other effects, you continually see shadowy images on the walls and, of course, beautifully clad ghosts of the ladies as they appeared in the original Follies start of the show gliding across the stage as the mysterious overture plays. Then they appear as mirror images during the ladies’ solos and get seriously involved with moving full length mirrors during that sobering “Who’s That Lady?” number.

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Adam Heller in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” in “Follies” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

The ghosts of Ben, Phyllis, Sally and Buddy are most prominent as they continually interconnect with their younger selves during the stirring “Waiting For The Girls Upstairs” and again prominently during the Loveland sequence with “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.” But they “haunt” their contemporary counterparts throughout the show and even appear to interact with them in pivotal scenes. Kathryn Boswell as young Phyllis, Sarah Quinn Taylor as young Sally, Michael Williams as young Ben and Cody Williams as young Buddy are brilliant performers and smoothly transition into these haunting scenes.

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The opening of the “Loveland” sequence during Sondheim’s “Follies” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Rep veteran Joneal Joplin is perfect as showman Dimitri Weismann, another Rep vet and Black Rep managing director, Ron Himes, is Max Deems and Robert DuSold rounds out the major cast as Roscoe. The powerful ensemble does remarkable work in multiple roles including the ghostly presence of the Follies girls. Valerie Maze is AMazing as conductor and pianist as the impressive orchestra leads the way for the memorable Sondheim score under the musical supervision of Brad Haak.

The ever-steady Rob Ruggiero gives “Follies” the nuance and majesty it deserves as director. He weaves the spell and we can’t help but follow on the edge of our seats. Choreographer Ralph Perkins has staged the musical numbers with heart and soul. The technical team has treated this show like their baby with a masterful set by Luke Cantarella, haunting (I keep using that word) lighting at the hand of John Lasiter and simply outstanding costumes from Amy Clark. I can’t say enough how every aspect of this production has come together for one of the most impressive and stunning performances we’ve seen in St. Louis.

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Bradley Dean in the finale of “Follies” as presented at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

The audience on opening night shouted and applauded throughout the evening and then leapt to their feet before the curtain call could even commence. This was a remarkable evening of theatre and will continue to be so throughout this run (just may have to see it again- or several more times) before that run ends. Speaking of which, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis continues with Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” through October 2nd. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 and grab those tickets while you can. You won’t see this show or a production this grand in St. Louis for a long time.

 

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