The third show of River Rep's 17th season at the historic Ivoryton Playhouse which opened in 1930 , is Stephen Sondheim's "Follies". The show is set in 1971 in a crumbling theatre's backstage that housed the Weisman Follies for the first and last reunion before the theatre is torn down. The faded stars emerge on the stage and the audience sees them as they are in 1971 as well as watching their younger selves in 1941. The stars look back at the choices they made and try to figure out the meaning of their lives in their present circumstances. Director/choreographer, Warren Kelley makes the the past and present characters so clearly defined you know who is who at all times, leading his hard working 31 member cast into giving a sparkling rendition of this show. The expert music direction is by Steven Katz who taught Sondheim's difficult music and lyrics to this cast which picks it up with ease. Combine this with Ort Pangue's many colorful costumes of the present and white ones of the past and you have makings for this stunning musical spectacle.
Warren's strong direction is shown because the show is also a psychological look at the four leads and you can clearly see why they are doing the things they do in the present. They are mirror images of each other. His choreography skills are used throughout the show especially in "Who's That Woman" done with hand held mirrors and The Folly of Youth segment. (The younger leads do their songs in perfect counterpoint while they dance up a storm.) The most poignant moment in the show is in "Too Many Mornings" where Ben and Sally admit their love in the past and present. The scene is magical in its dramatic effect and is perfectly done. However you learn later this feeling was an illusion of the past and not a current memory. This is not an easy show to pull off but Warren and his crew do this show very well. The 3 member combo is conducted by Joseph Ganci who is also the percussionist with Paul Feyer on the keyboard and Heather Bloam-Wagner on the bass. They create a multitude of beautiful music.
The four leads are expertly played by Julia Kiley as Sally Plummer, Jean Tafler as Phyllis Stone, Todd Thurston as Ben Stone and Ron Bagden as Buddy Plummer. They each have their moment to shine in the show as do their younger counterparts. Julia who looks like Anita Gillette, plays the distraught wife who thinks she should have married Ben. She is an excellent actress who really tugs at your heartstings in this role and her two solos, "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" are beautifully rendered. In the former she sings about how everything looks to her husband and in the latter she sings about her obsession with the man she thinks she loves and the devastating way it has affected her life. Jean is as strong in her role, where she plays the hard as nails wife who underneath it all still does care about her cadlike husband. Her two solos are "Could I Leave You?" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie". In the first she sings to Ben about if she could walk away from him after his horrible treatment of her and in the second she sings about the two different women she had to be to survive life with him. Todd is very strong as Ben, the hubby in politics who has strayed throughout the years because he never understood himself. His powerful voice soars in his solos, "The Road You Didn't Take" and "Live, Laugh, Love". In the former he sings about what could have been and in the latter he finally realizes his life has been a sham and he corrects the error of his ways. Ron as Buddy, the comical sidekick of Ben, gets to strut his stuff in his two solos, "The Right Girl" and "Buddy's Blues". In the first he is trying to figure out who he should be with, either his wife, Sally or his mistress, Margie and in the second one, he loves them both but wants to be with the other one at the same time, too. The four younger leads do a great job in their roles as the shadows but they do have a lot of acting, singing and dancing to do on their own, too. Katherine McClain as Sally, Amy Lee Williams as Phyllis, Stephen Dean Brennan as Ben and Michael Jacobs as Buddy join the other four in "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" which shows them when they first met while doing the follies. Stephen and Katherine do a great job acting as young lovers in "Too Many Mornings" scene and in their breakup scene when he is going off during World War II. The duets of "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" by Stephen and Amy and "Love Will See Us Through" by Michael and Katherine while dancing are gorgeous and the counterpoint is fantastic. All eight leads deserve the thunderous ovation they receive for all their hard work.
The other cast members do topnotch work, too. The first song of the show sets the mood with tenor, Gary Sullivan wearing a red sequin tuxedo, belting out "Beautiful Girls". (The song closes the show with the entire cast singing it where Gary gets to show off his high A in this verse.) One of the biggest scene stealers in this show is Joan Shepard as Hattie. She delivers some funny one liners and brings the house down in her "Broadway Baby" number. Another scene stealer is Susan Terry as the bigger than life actress, Carlotta who has seen and done everything in her career. She stops the show with her belting number, "I'm Still Here". Constance Tredwell plays Stella who sings a song about mirrors called "Who's That Woman". It is also a wonderful dance number which is done with 10 women, 5 from the past and 5 from the present. (The huge mirrors are held by the follies girls.) Some of the other performers include Jean DeGroth as Solange sings "Ah Paree" while Lori Conley and Owen Thompson play the dancing couple, Emily and Theodore who sing and dance to "Rain on the Roof" while both women who play Heidi with fabulous soprano voices, Carol Connolly and Dianna Tucker sing the beautiful waltz ballad called "One More Kiss". The chorus sounds wonderful especially in the "Loveland Song". Rounding out this huge cast is Evan Thompson as Dimitri Weisman, Susan Gayle Pynn, Michael Sayers, Arthur Pignataro, Michael Cartwright,Tracy Liz Miller, Kimberly Canning, Kathryn Proco, Heather Camille Nolan, Monica Vazquez, Rainbow Dickerson, Leslie Bradshaw, Curt Foy and Tom Bruett as Kevin the waiter who has a fling with Phyllis. So for an outstanding production of a Sondhiem musical, be sure to catch "Follies" at the historic Ivoryton Playhouse. ( One of its most famous actresses was Katherine Hepburn who appeared in 7 shows at this theatre during its second season in 1931.) In honor of this playhouse, after 73 years, I'd like to quote one of the songs from the show, "I'm Still Here" to celebrate its being the oldest summer stock theatre in Connecticut. "Bravo."