June 6 2012 12:00 AM

Strong cast battles flimsy script in splashy 'Follies'

To produce a show called “Follies,” one must be either very brave or self-delusional about one’s limitations. In the case of Riverwalk Theatre’s production, directed by Ken Beachler, it may be a bit of both. As when Riverwalk took on “Into the Woods” in 2009, the theater expresses its hunger for big productions, but ultimately finds that its eyes are bigger than its stomach. And its stage.

Scaling down these humongous Stephen Sondheim musicals is like squeezing a Mini Cooper in the back of a Lincoln Navigator. Sure, it will fit, but it won’t leave anyone much legroom. The production has a cast of 30 people, a grand staircase and big dance numbers, all of which overwhelm the performance space.

The greatest folly of “Follies” is the script itself. The production notes chronicle the play’s spotty history, which is probably not the best way to introduce audiences to a play which most have never seen. Although it won some Tony Awards, The New York Times panned it, with good reason. Once the main conflict is revealed, the play vacillates between redundant relationship issues and nostalgic numbers for almost two and a half hours. It is a sloppy mess of storytelling from which at least 30 minutes could easily be excised.

Dimitri Weismann (Mark Zussman), producer of a Ziegfeld-like cabaret show that ran between the Great Wars, hosts a reunion at his theater before it is to be razed for a parking lot. A handful of past cast members gathers to relive their glory days. Among them are former roommates Phyllis (Janine Novenske Smith) and Sally (Emily English Clark). They are accompanied by their husbands — former best friends — Ben (Doak Bloss) and Buddy (Rick Merpi), respectively. 

As the evening progresses into a mild bacchanal of song and drink, the two couples alternately celebrate and suffer through the memories of their past at the Follies. Relationships are ripped apart and rebuilt, the cycle repeating until the primary characters achieve a fairly depressing acceptance of mature relationships.

All is not folly, and certainly not the four leads. Novenske Smith is unapologetic as the cold and brittle Phyllis. Her façade hides the insecure showgirl inside whose only goal at age 21 was to become Ben’s perfect wife. Ben is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, and Bloss exudes a blend of emotional impotency, resentment and self-doubt. English Clark’s Sally is the perfect balance of imbalance, at once sweetly naïve yet dangerously delusional. 

The real showstopper, though, is  Merpi as Sally’s philandering yet patient husband Buddy. Buddy is a clown, as evidenced by his garish 1970s Catskills comedian-style formal wear that devolves into an even more vaudevillian buffoon’s outfit in his fantasy sequence. Merpi fully embraces Buddy’s insecure idiocy, tearing up the set with his athletic performances in both “The Right Girl” and “Buddy’s Blues.” 

The other big stars of this production are costume designer Patti Campbell and choreographer Karyn Perry. The costumes run the gamut from 1940s-era metropolitan streetclothes, to follies-style costumes both simple and outlandish, to 1970s party wear. The costumes are the highest production value, a perfect contrast to the simple set and minimal props.  

Perry’s fantastic choreography ranges from elegant to fast and furious, so it is a real shame that the set limitations hamper the dancers. In larger numbers of more than six cast members, the dancers’ movements become restrained as they try to avoid hitting one another, a prop or the audience. This is a shame, because the cast and choreographer obviously have a passion for the work.

The staircase, too, creates a bit of tension. Many of the cast seem unsteady descending the stairs, although the fleet-footed Evan Pinsonnault, as young Buddy, proves the steps are sound as he nimbly and naturally bounces through “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.”

While the story structure may be uneven, two performances in particular elevate “Follies” beyond its descriptive title. As Hattie, Judith Evans performs “Broadway Baby” with deceptive ease, her voice smooth and strong, her attitude sassy. Colleen Bethea plays the brassy Carlotta, whose autobiographical “I’m Still Here” is an anthem to strong-willed survivors everywhere. Hearing her belt it out makes one wonder why some “American Idol” diva hasn’t scored big with this song of female empowerment.

The question is answered with the unsatisfying denouement of the play. Not many people are familiar with the work because at its core, it just isn’t that great. Riverwalk took on a challenge with producing “Follies,” and through the strength of the cast, direction, choreography and costumes, avoided making it just that.


Riverwalk Theatre

228 Museum Dr.ive, Lansing

7 p.m. Thursday, June 7; 8 p.m. Friday, June 8 and Saturday, June 9; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 10

$20; $18 seniors, students and military personnel

(517) 482-5700