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Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s ‘Follies’ dazzles at every turn

BenjamStone (Brent Barrett) Sally Durant (Susan Moniz) begrekindle old feelings when they attend theatrical reuniChicago Shakespeare Theater’s productiJames Goldman Stephen

Benjamin Stone (Brent Barrett) and Sally Durant (Susan Moniz) begin to rekindle old feelings when they attend a theatrical reunion in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”

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◆ Through Nov. 14

◆ Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

◆ Tickets, $44-$75

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Updated: November 16, 2011 12:41PM

If you are passionately in love with show business — with tour-de-force production numbers, torch songs that burn the edges off your heart and soul, classic vaudeville routines, song-and-dance novelty acts, swirls of operetta, and all the things that for decades prompted Variety to print headlines bearing those unbeatable words, “SOCKO” and “BOFFO” — then “Follies,” the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman extravaganza now receiving a massive, insightfully cast, can-you-top-this production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is the show to see.

If you are passionately in love with love — with all those romantic notions of boy-meets-girl, wedding bells will ring, and decades of devotion and happiness will surely follow — you had better strap on your steeliest suit of armor before entering the theater.

“Follies” may be a lavish Valentine to all things bright and beautiful on the stage of dreams. But real life, as this grand-scale musical never fails to remind you, is a far more brutal and bitter drama — one stripped of all the sparkle and feathers, and suitable to be “played” out by only the toughest and most resilient survivors. If the show’s first act is an homage to the fantasy-spinning Golden Age of Broadway in the first half of the 20th century, its second half, largely devoted to a grand Follies-style “Loveland” sequence, is something of a variety hour showcase of extreme, intensely theatrical emotional breakdowns.

A monster of a show, both physically and emotionally, this production of “Follies,” insightfully directed by Gary Griffin, also turns out to be a sensational tribute to a slew of mostly Chicago divas (and one knockout guest) who play the characters who once were “the girls upstairs,” attended by Stage Door Johnnys, but who now bring a whole new meaning to the term “women of a certain age.” The men are not ignored here, but the real Follies were temples to the idealization of women, and it is women who remain the focus here.

The time is 1971. The place is the stage of a Broadway theater that for decades was the site of the Weismann Follies, but that now is slated for demolition. Gathering for a reunion, along with the still sparkly but elderly Dimitri Weissman (Mike Nussbaum, with a leggy blond trophy “companion” at his side, is perfection), are several generations of showgirls and stars, plus a couple of husbands. And as they recall the past, the present hits them fully and unforgivingly in the face.

Front and center are two deeply troubled marriages. Phyllis (the sensational Caroline O’Conner, whose slew of Broadway and European credits hardly prepare you for her breathtaking, impossibly sexy dancing and singing in the knockout number, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” let alone the ferocious “Could I Leave You?” , was the insecure girl who married Benjamin (Brent Barrett, whose matinee idol good looks are paired with a luscious voice). But Ben was the guy her adorable roommate, Sally (Susan Moniz, wonderfully believable as the clinically unstable 49-year-old clinging to her girlishness) really wanted. Now, Benjamin is successful, but disillusioned, angry, detached.

Sally married the adoring Buddy (Robert Petkoff, whose immense physical grace and emotional daring are manifest in both “The Right Girl” and “Buddy’s Blues”), but has made his life a misery. Both couples also are seen in contrast to their youthful doppelgangers played by Rachel Cantor, Adrian Aguilar, L.R. Davidson and Andrew Keltz.

The happiness quotient here is supplied by the show biz gals still ready and willing to perform, and they are beyond marvelous. Marilynn Bogetich (whose orthopedic shoes are a touch of genius), almost steals the first act with her rendition of “Broadway Baby,” in which her enunciation of the word “show” brilliantly encapsulates the heat of show biz fever. But then there’s Hollis Resnik, with her platinum French twist and glamorous coppery gown (Virgil C. Johnson’s character-defining costumes are beyond masterful), as the foxy lady who not only nails that personal newsreel, “I’m Still Here,” but puts an unforgettable stamp on her character Carlotta’s assessment of men.

Nancy Voigts zestily grabs the spotlight in “Who’s That Woman.” Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre are irresistible charmers as veteran vaudevillian lovebirds in “Rain on the Roof.” Kathy Taylor is a hoot as the Parisian chanteuse with the grand decolletage. Linda Stephens puts a nostalgic spin on Viennese operetta. And Bill Chamberlain sings in that Follies tenor style that clearly is not a lost art.

Valerie Maze leads the superb onstage orchestra of 12, with Brad Haak’s music direction and Alex Sanchez’s choreography spot-on throughout. And Kevin Depinet’s minimalist set captures the ravages of time in an old theater­ that, like the marriages and careers delineated in the show, has been stripped bare of all the illusion that was once its hallmark. As Phyllis so succinctly observes early on in the show: “Well, don’t you look swept away by the past.”

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