Here, there's just a reunion of showgirls — second-tier showgirls, mostly — and their stage-door Johnnies in an old theater — a fleapit that once held young souls who forgot the one thing that young souls always forget: the brevity of the moment when all life's turnstiles remain open. And since even a reunion of accountants is complex, the party first concocted by James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim in 1971 has several sides. Most "Follies" are framed by a proscenium. Chicago Shakespeare Theater has a proscenium arch at the rear — here filled with an elevated, 12-piece, all-acoustic orchestra. We easily assume that the character of the foxy old producer Dimitri Weismann (played by the foxy old Mike Nussbaum) has assembled it on the stage for this one last shebang, never intending his guests to fill it with their own neuroses. Ah, but they do. Still, the core of Griffin's real party — the conversations, the impromptu performances, the meltdowns — is located in the gut of the theater, on the thrust stage, where there is no easy remove for anyone.
At the end of Wednesday night's rapturously received opening (the show was stopped several times for emotional ovations), Susan Moniz and her sad-eyed, ever-hopeful Sally clearly couldn't walk off a Broadway stage and take a limo to a comforting Midtown eatery, mutual pain forgotten. Moniz — who, remarkably, conveys both the ambitious showgirl that once was, and the timid Phoenix housewife that now is, with equal alacrity — serves up a woman for whom that moment is long gone, not that it ever really was. Similarly, there is no respite for Caroline O'Connor's devastating Phyllis in self-aware one-liners. As choreographed by Alex Sanchez, O'Connor dances up a truly formidable storm in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," the dark Act 2 folly, but both actress and director convey that this is a one-off, a last hurrah, a reminder that while the world is often wrong in its assumptions of who should do what and when they should do it, those assumptions still rule the world. O'Connor is both unbowed and, when all is said, danced and done, reduced to the ordinary. You sense throughout, in just the right meta kind of way, that when this "Follies" ends, it will exact a price from these actresses.
Only Hollis Resnik's Carlotta, elegantly costumed by Virgil C. Johnson, has sufficient strength to withhold the blows of a party such as this. Resnik's "I'm Still Here" is no blast of existential defiance. Rather, Resnik feels the underlying heartbeat of the song, leans into its bouncy refrain and bats back most of its inherent lyrical challenges, as if the crises of which the character sings were mere inconveniences. It is an unconventional but wholly thrilling and complex rendition. And it makes sense that Carlotta, the alumna who actually had the career, is the only one whose glamour has turned into armor that protects. After a few gins.
As Benjamin Stone, the juvenile who goes on to ruin at least three on-stage lives, including his own, Brent Barrett could yet do to bare more of his soul. His performance is magnetic, musically powerful and, in Act 2, reveals a man of magnitude finally losing his confidence. But that's only part of this self-loathing success story. The necessary stabs of regret are tough to discern in "The Road You Didn't Take." Barrett has such a smooth and polished exterior that the revelation of demons requires more of a collapse; to paraphrase the Bible, the more you were naturally given, the more you are obliged to do. Robert Petkoff plays a bit young for Buddy, Stone's old pal. And here too, you crave yet more devastation. That said, the famous moment when Buddy stumbles in on his desperate wife desperately loving another is … well, Petkoff just collapses at the back of the stage with the simple pain of the inevitable sight. You care for him deeply thereafter. So it goes, especially, with the terrific old "Follies" girls, whether it's Nancy Voigts' gutsy Stella or Marilynn Bogetich choking back the lyrical incongruities and somehow getting through "Broadway Baby."
The overt reference to the Fosse-esque feathers of the musical "Chicago" in "Live, Laugh, Love" is problematic (the similarity of the choreography pulls you out), especially since Barrett needs to have shaken off his outer Billy Flynn by that point. But then, none of us is perfect. Just a little wiser and sadder as we go.
When: Through Nov. 6
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $44-$75 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com