With its tattered black curtains, chipped and dusty proscenium and an assortment of grungy props and scenery pieces strewn around the stage, the Riverwalk Theatre looks like it’s seen better days. That’s exactly how it’s meant to be for “Follies,” Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical psychodrama set in a soon-to-be-razed playhouse.
“A little more floating — ethereal,” director Ken Beachler told a pair of dancers playing phantom showgirls at a rehearsal last week.
In many ways, “Follies” is a ghost story in which people haunt themselves. As one lyric succinctly puts it, “No backward glance, or my heart will break — never look back.”
Set in 1971, “Follies” brings together a group of former “chorus cuties” — once the stars of “The Weismann Follies,” a glittering revue along the lines of the Ziegfeld Follies or George White’s Scandals — for a reunion in which nostalgia mixes with nastiness and wistfulness.
Most of the women have given up on their stage careers, but many of them are still putting on an act of one sort or another. There’s Solange La Fitte (Jane Shipley Zussman), who sashays around making grand declarations in her theatrical French accent and peddling her latest cologne (“‘Caveman’ — for the man who is a natural hunter!” she growls). Stella Deems (Alexsandria Clift) claims she has no regrets about leaving behind the spotlight, although when she starts to go into detail about her supposedly blissful life as a retail manager she can’t seem to complete her stories.
“The way the show is put together — and I think Sondheim had this in mind — although it pays tribute to (composers) Cole Porter and Jerome Kern and DeSylva, Henderson and Brown, I think Sondheim’s real role models were Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht,” Beachler said. “If you know shows like ‘Happy End’ or ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,’ those are shows in which people sing about scary or dangerous things, which is exactly what they do in this show.”
That’s particularly true of Sally Durant Plummer (Emily English Clark) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Janine Novenske Smith), one-time roommates and best friends who went their separate ways when the Follies fell apart in 1941. Both married guys who had once waited outside their dressing room door: Phyllis wed Ben (Doak Bloss), who has become a great success, while Sally tied the knot with Buddy (Rick Merpi), a traveling salesman whose career has taken them down some bumpy roads. After some initial fawning over each other (“I read about you in the magazines,” Sally gushes to Phyllis. “I even saw your living room in Vogue!”), decades-old jealousies and recriminations begin to creep into the women’s conversation. Sally has never completely recovered from her early romance with Buddy, and sharp-eyed Phyllis knows it.
If Sondheim’s “Company,” which opened on Broadway in 1970, a year before “Follies,” was an ode to the comforts of monogamy, this is the bitter flipside. The marriages of Sally and Phyllis are crumbling as quickly as the once-opulent theater, which is occupied by the spectres of the vivacious beauties Sally and Phyllis once were. Frequently, visions of the younger Sally (Veronica Leigh Diebold), Phyllis (Betsy Jane Bledsoe), Ben (Dale Powell) and Buddy (Evan Pinsonnault) materialize to illustrate how the two couples fell into place and to sing cheerful, soon-to-be-ironic numbers like “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” and “Love Will See Us Through.”
“That’s a frequent criticism of Sondheim, that he’s anti-marriage,” Beachler said. “People say, ‘Oh, he’s single, he’s gay, he hasn’t had a lot of luck with his partners.’”
Perhaps the central subject of “Follies” is the treachery of memory. Beachler — who directed “Follies” at the Okemos Barn in 1978, but laughingly admitted he “doesn’t remember a thing about it, except that I had excellent people in it and that it was a big success” — finds the real key to the piece in what almost seems like a throwaway monologue. Heidi Schiller (Mary Alice Stollak), once a Viennese opera singer and Follies star, tells her former boss, Dimitri Weismann (Mark Zussman), the story of how she once inspired Franz Lehar to compose a waltz in her honor. Or perhaps it was Oscar Straus. Heidi shrugs her shoulders.
“Facts never interest me,” she notes as she strolls away. “What matters is the song.”
“And there you have it: It’s not necessarily a very big role in the show, and yet she has the real message of the entire show,” Beachler said. “It’s so like Sondheim to hide it like that.”
May 31-June 10
228 Museum Dr., Lansing
7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
$20; $18 seniors, students and military personnel