It is extremely important to acknowledge those unique gay artists who bring oceanic empathy, compassion, and intricate psychological insight to heterosexual suffering. Plays by Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Sir Terence Rattigan, and Thornton Wider bear testimony to this gift. The ingenious television creations by Marc Cherry do so as well. And in the realm of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim looms in this category. One of the greatest works in all theater history emanates these qualities like no other: Sondheim’s 1971 milestone, Follies, now in an utterly staggering and stupendous revival at Artistry—formerly Bloomington Civic Theatre.
Follies is a musical that takes place in memory. A group of former dancers—”showgirls” as they were known— return in reunion to the theater where they were featured in previous decades. Nostalgia clashes with existential truth. Two of the dancers, both women, attend with their husbands who knew them in those salad days. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, both relationships have come to be rocky. Buddy cheats on his wife Sally, who decades later still pines away for Ben. Phyllis, Ben’s wife, has been incrementally neglected emotionally by her husband. And what’s so superb in the creation of the character by writer James Goldman, composer-lyricist Sondheim, and actress Wendy Short-Hays is that Phyllis doesn’t come off as a shrill stereotype of a wronged spouse. She brings dignity and a legitimate complaint as opposed to a wallowing attitude.
That said, this is Sally’s issue. She is oblivious to how her yearning for a man from her past systematically drives her spouse away. Moreover, this goes on for years. Caitlin Burns’ portrayal of Sally viscerally reveals that inner conflict. Paul Coate’s Buddy is magnificent in its revealing of how emotional rejection drives away a partner. The legendary Bradley Greenwald gives one of his greatest performances ever as Ben. One automatically dislikes Ben for his smugness but what Greenwald illuminates ultimately is the character’s decades of self-deception suddenly quickening into consciousness. (One is reminded of Alec Guinness in his last moments in Bridge on the River Kwai or Gena Rowlands toward the end of Another Woman. The veil is swiftly lifted and for it to have the dramatic impact necessary it must be set up in how the actor has played it between and within the lines and body language, or in this case the lyrics.)
Ever since director Benjamin McGovern’s magical staging of The Adding Machine a generation ago, right up to last year’s gripping revival of Wit, he has long proved his gift for drilling into complicated emotions in well-written plays. This expertise certainly lends well to the rich subtext of these conflicted relationships in his Follies staging. But at Artistry, he has spirited forth an hypnotic experience that lives between dream and the corporeal in ways that one seldom experiences in the live theater. Movies, yes. But theater, not so much. But McGovern achieves this.
He is aided by the glorious Ziegfeld style channeled by legendary choreographer Myron Johnson. The dance ensemble move like phantoms placed as if they were ephemeral wisps in a fleeting dream. Rebekah Myers, Riley Parham, Michaela Shapiro, and Christian B. La Bissoniere utterly beguile as the younger versions of the two primary couples. Michael Fischetti is marvelous as the patriarch of the Follies realm.
The other veteran hoofers are dynamically played by Melissa Hart, Diana Wilde,T.J. Mayrand, and Gail Ottmar. Other performers also contribute beautifully: Elly Stahlke, Emily Sue Bengston, Brittany Marie Wilson, Lars Nisswandt, Jordan Gryzbowski, Sarah DeYong, and Marty Swaden.
The mystical atmosphere is gorgeously and ever-so-stylishly enhanced by lighting designer Mike Grogan, costume designer Ed Gleeman, and set designer Eli Sherlock. Anita Ruth’s music direction and the musicians are brilliant and impeccable—an utterly glorious emanation of Sondheim’s greatest and most complex work.
Note on theater history: The Ziegfeld Follies were extravagant and spectacular dance revues on Broadway from 1907 to 1931. You can see their influence in the musical films of Busby Berkeley, not to mention the 1936 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Great Ziegfeld. Additionally, the hugely popular stage and film musical, Funny Girl, reflects the Ziegfeld aesthetic memorably and satirically in the ultra-stylish number, His Love Makes Me Beautiful. Those who love westerns will also note the saloon entertainers of the old west are precursors to the Follies tradition, and of course, the Can-Can tradition of post-Napoleonic Paris. If you’ve been to Las Vegas you may have attended the Folies Bergere—a somewhat eroticized version of the tradition.
Through May 6
Artistry, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd.