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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 3.17.11

 

Swan Song of Youth

Follies is a sad, lovely lament for time lost

by Rick Levin

Having just turned 40, Stephen Sondheim was working at the peak of his genius when he composed the songs for Follies, a time-tripping pastiche of musical theater that centers on a 1970s reunion of fan-tan girls (and their boys) who danced and sang for a New York revue in the years before the Second World War. It is a testament to Sondheims brilliance that, at a relatively young age, he was able to capture and give voice to the remorse and yearning and scuttled dreams suffered by times passage, and to do so in a manner at once stinging, elegiac and hilariously sad. Follies is about the fools gold of ones golden years. With a book by James Goldman, the musical is a teeming, tumultuous reverie haunted, quite literally, by the sweet ghost of youth and the regrets of choices turned down or shut out. It is a difficult but lovely work, rarely staged because its so tough to pull off ã especially for a small community theater living by its wits and hard work.

Phyllis (Sharon Rosalyn Sless) and the boys in Follies

The Very Little Theater, now in its 83rd year, is the oldest continuously running community theater west of the Mississippi. Im sure in that span of time Eugenes little theater that could has staged more than its share of off-kilter or mediocre plays, maybe even a few bonified fiascos. It happens. Which is all the more reason to celebrate and salute the enormously gutsy and ultimately successful bite director Michael Watkins and crew have taken out of Sondheims epic, kaleidoscopic musical. According to Watkins, the VLT production is "scaled down,” but even so the show is massive: Thirty-four actors swirling, singing, dancing, flirting, fighting and otherwise in constant flow on a small stage with a single set (that also accommodates a small orchestra). That Follies works at all under these restraints is impressive; that it works so well, achieving such grandeur and fluidity, is downright amazing.

Throughout the production, past and present occur simultaneously; everyone at the reunion is shadowed on stage by his or her younger self, a doppelganger that sometimes simply observes in wonder or, once in a while, takes over the scene in a sort of emotional flashback. Despite multiple sub-plots and tangents, Follies at its core is the story of two couples who, out of touch for years, come together to bid farewell to the soon-to-be-demolished theater where they first met: There is dreamy Sally (played by Sue Schroeder-White in the present, and Samantha Rose White in youth) and her aggrieved husband Buddy (Larry Kenton, and Colin Gray in youth); and sassy Phyllis (Sharon Rosalyn Sless, in youth Cate Wolfenbarger) and her dead-inside husband, Ben (Gene Chin, in youth Cody Mendonca). Among these four characters there were youthful indiscretions, betrayals, star-crossed affairs and jilted tangles. How these past foibles play out in the foursomes near-twilight years ã as greater or lesser follies of age ã provides the drama, humor and sadness of this excellent production.

Under Watkinss wise, elegant direction ã and thanks to a uniformly strong cast and great band ã Follies moves with a singular grace, and its a joy to see generations of actors inhabiting the stage together with such a winking, knowing confidence and ease. The music, of course, is sublime, with Sondheim reaching back into the age of burlesque, Big Band jazz and Tin Pan Alley (there is a stunning tap-dancing number). Sondheims lyrics, so well delivered here, speak to the wreckage of times wake with what can only be called a delicate cynicism, or a defeated triumph ã or, really, its just life, in all its rich, bittersweet pageantry. When Carlotta Campion (the completely amazing Peg Major, returned to the stage after years of directing) BRING's down the house with "Im Still Here,” you feel it in your bones, and whatever it is you feel, its the opposite of folly. Its freedom.

Follies plays 8pm Thursdays through Saturdays, through April 2, with a matinee 2pm Sunday, March 20 & 27, at the Very Little Theatre, 2350 Hilyard; $13-$18; tickets at www.thevlt.com or 344-7751.