St. Louis is a standing ovation town. Many shows receive them, and some even deserve them. Nancy Opel, playing show-biz survivor Carlotta Campion in the Repertory Theatre St. Louis' current production of Follies, earned her standing "O" in the middle of the first act. It was a spontaneous group decision by the audience after she belted her way through "I'm Still Here," a song about refusing to move when life tries to shove you out of the way. Opel delivered a sublime combination of showmanship, vocal technique, mastery of the material and chutzpah, and the audience, appropriately, leapt to its feet.
Follies is an exemplary musical, but this production is something else entirely. Certainly the audience was primed for the event, this being the opening production of the Rep's 50th season. But Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman wove magic into the fabric of the play, and director Rob Ruggiero has found every last thread of it. This is by any measure a flawless presentation of a show that rewards audiences emotionally and spiritually. Theatergoers will still be talking about this Follies in 50 years.
Follies is a memory play about a pair of failing relationships. The former chorus girls of the Weismann Follies reunite in the ruins of their theater on the eve of its destruction (full marks to scenic designer Luke Cantarella for his gorgeous rendition of the decayed theater-within-the-theater). It's been 30 years since the show closed, and this is the first time the group has seen each other. Among them are former roommates Phyllis (Emily Skinner) and Sally (Christiane Noll) and their husbands Benjamin (Bradley Dean) and Buddy (Adam Heller). Phyllis and Benjamin are comfortably wealthy and barely speaking to each other, while Sally and Buddy are getting by and making false starts toward repairing the breach in their relationship. As the evening progresses we see the past unfold and repeat itself as Young Buddy and Young Ben (Cody Williams and Michael Williams, respectively) court Young Sally and Young Phyllis (Sarah Quinn Taylor and Kathryn Boswell) beside their older selves.
Their intertwined stories unfold around the memories of their fellow chorus girls Hattie (Zoe Vonder Haar, who gets a massive response for her incredible "Broadway Baby"), Stella (E. Faye Butler, another house-shaker) and the aforementioned Carlotta. Follies has been criticized for setting pastiches of Golden Age songs next to modern plangent tunes of heartbreak and regret, but Ruggiero and cast make it all feel natural, human and very real. This is life — you laugh so hard recalling the glory days that you start crying about the present.
Those modern songs are killers, by the way. Adam Heller attacks "The Right Girl" with all the frenzy of a scorned husband on his last leg. Christiane Noll is an addled chanteuse lost in the dream world of "Losing My Mind." Emily Skinner comprehensively eviscerates a caddish husband in "Could I Leave You." Bradley Dean suffers a terrifying emotional breakdown during "Live, Laugh, Love." There are highlights upon highlights, incandescent performances from every individual cast member and heart-wrenching confrontations between men and women who have lost their way and ruined themselves. All around them flicker ghostly chorus girls in opulent costumes, in the husk of a theater that has spun its last dream ending.
And then we enter "Loveland," a grandiose production number that revives the theater and restores all broken hearts. If theater is a group effort to create the semblance of life on a naked stage, "Loveland" is the successful propagation of life channeled directly into the hearts of the audience. There is nothing that can adequately prepare you for the wonders of it. Warm up your hands and prepare to be lifted out of your seat — there are standing ovations in your near future.