Review: Follies by Entr'acte at Parker Jazz Club, March 5, 2023
by Michael Meigs

Daniel Dufour, Sarah Walker (photo by Dave Hawks)Sarah and Adam, how could you torment a theatre reviewer so? The Sunday afternoon performance of Sondheim's dense, evocative 1971 musical Follies at the atmospheric Parker Jazz Club was the first of only two, performed on a single day. What use, then, is a review, except as an expression of regret that more theatre lovers did not get to witness it?


Wikipedia asserts that Follies was the first work for which Sondheim insisted on writing both the music and the lyrics, which reside in a libretto by James Goldman. In very brief, the setting is a vaudeville theatre about to be torn down, in which cast members from its glory days gather to reminisce and celebrate an art form—think Florenz Ziegfield's 50/girls/50 approach to entertainment, now enshrined principally in black-and-white cinema recreations. Though it's not stated, such a meeting would have had to take place about a decade earlier than the 1971 premiere.


That's a rich field of nostalgia, and it was a recent one; the production was crafted only about thirty years after vaudeville circuits crumbled. Sondheim, only 41 years of age at the time, had already been involved over a decade and a half in three huge hit musicals followed by two failures; he wasn't old enough to have directly experienced the Orpheum and other circuits, but he'd certainly been immersed in a theatre culture still profoundly affected by them. (It was cinema that killed vaudeville; the Orpheum was reduced to a single letter "O" when it was sold to investors who put together RKO to merchandise films in those performance houses.)


(photo by Dave Hawks)That vivid but vanished performance culture offers all sorts of plot approaches -- think, for example, of the apparently eternally repeating title A Star is Born. Casting it in bittersweet retrospect, Sondheim and Goldman dwell in Follies on the powerful emotions of yearning and regret, themes that would recur in Sondheim's works throughout his long career.


The principals in this story's heart-stopping moment of frozen time—did you joyfully attend school reunions, by the way?—arrive at the crumbling theatre: first Sally (Sarah Fleming Walker); then wife and husband Phyllis (Leslie Vander Ghenyst) and Ben (Sebastian Vitale); then Sally's husband Buddy (Andrew Cannata).


Host/impresario Dmitri Weissman (Neal Gibson) appears, and in short order the rest of the hoofers, crooners, and assorted entertainers turn up—Max, Stella, former Emcee Roscoe, Hattie, Carlotta, then, eventually Willy, Emily and Theo. Sondheim assigns a series of powerful musical numbers, both solos and ensemble performances. Further complicating matters is that from very early in the action the four principals are doubled by their younger selves (in order of appearance of their principals, Sarah Zeringue, Josean Rodriguez, Caroline O'Brien, and Sam Domino). The Follies cast for this concert version includes four instances of double casting: Amy Downing as Stella and Solange, Gibson as Weissman and Theodore Whiteman, Nancy Gray and Ray DeJohn with duties both as a character and as a swing). 


This was a concert presentation, not a fully staged performance. The stage area at the Parker Jazz Club is restricted and had a six-member orchestra at the back. Those factors made for a lot of movement and—for those of us not familiar with the script—a certain amount of confusion about who was who and what was going on. 


Walker, in the lead role of Sally, is the most evocative of them as she deals simultaneously with memories of loss and evidence that lives have changed irremediably. Ghenyst as Phyllis and Vitale as her husband Ben have the polite, daggers-drawn attitudes of those on the verge of bitter breakup, though inexplicably by the end of the evening they'll seem to have forgotten their disappointments with one another. Andrew Cannata as Buddy long ago abandoned performance and is now a sleek, successful corporate man. This quartet—doubled by younger selves in carefully differentiated costume—is the core of the story. But then librettist and composer pile on the numbers.  This being musical theatre, every one of the fifeen performers (and nineteen characters) was given at least one razzle-dazzle moment in the limelight. Follies opens with an orchestral prologue and overture, followed by twenty-one sung numbers. (Thanks, Wikipedia; the single 5x8 card printed mostly in tiny font didn't list the songs or specify which performer delivered them.) There's occasional dialogue, read from prompt books, but the musical performances dominate throughout.


Laura Huffman, Michelle Cheney (photos by Dave Hawks)


Andrew Cannata, Amy Downing (photo by Dave Hawks)And those were golden. I came away from that Sunday afternoon performance blinking in confusion at the light of day outside and understanding the references to Follies as a "cult favorite." Music lovers, particularly Sondheim fans, didn't require much of a plot, and the songs defined emotions with razor precision. So much ache and so much longing, yet so much celebration of youth and folly.


Any performer would delight in the fierce defiance of aged headliner Carlotta (Laura Huffman Powell) in I'm Still Here, and Cannata's comic, schizophrenic energy in The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues sets the stage afire. Michelle Cheney's delivery of Broadway Baby, a plaint that turns into a proud strut, is spot-on for the impishly naughty persona she's brought on stage many times before. Those are just a few of the solo standouts. The ensemble numbers (Beautiful Girls; The Girls Upstairs; Loveland; Live, Laugh, Love) are exhilarating.There's so much in Sondheim's music that though you'd like for this story to be clearer, you wouldn't give up a single number.


Staging this power piece at the Parker Jazz Club was an artistic coup, combining the intimacy of that dark, crowded space and the blast of Sondheim's genius. It's elemental physics; compress all of that atmosphere and volatile material into a closed room, and you have an unforgettable, communicable, astonishing experience. 


Entr'acte is the name of this company, a venture by Adam Roberts and Sarah Fleming Walker, who have announced two additional concert titles in 2023. An entr'acte is a live, limited performance offered during the interval between parts of a larger production. Ironically, that can harken back to the demise of those vaudeville circuits, when RKO and others offered brief live performances at the break of a double-feature cinema program. Sarah and Adam have repurposed the term: their entr'actes are slated to be brilliant two-off performances of classic musical theatre undertaken by terrifically talented vocal artists in the intervals between their work in other stage works or vocal presentations. I plan to make sure ahead of time that I'm familiar with Stephen Schwartz's Children of Eden on July 23 and Ken Ludwig's reworking of the Gershwins' material in Crazy for You on November 12.



Click to view the program card for Follies in Concert


(Photo by Dave Hawks)







by James Golden, Stephen Sondheim

March 05, 2023
Parker Jazz Club
117 W. 4th Street
(4th & Colorado)
Austin, TX, 78701

March 5, 2023 (single performance)

Parker Jazz Club, Austin

Tickets available from February 1, 2023