University Theatre at N.C. State will jump-start the Fall theater season with a gala production of Follies, an all-too-rarely rarely produced musical masterpiece written by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Goldman and staged by UT director of theater John C. McIlwee and choreographer Cindy Hoban. UT's all-star cast includes veteran performers such as tenor Robert Sinclair Galbraith of The Opera Company of North Carolina, Dorothy R. Brown, and Fred Gorelick, plus many talented collegians. Besides McIlwee and Hoban, the UT production team includes musical director Julie A. Florin, set designer Crawford "Corky" Pratt, lighting designer Terri L. Janney, and sound designer Kevin Wright. McIlwee will double as the show's costume designer.
Nominated for 10 1972 Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, the original Broadway production of Follies took home the Tonys for Best Original Score (Stephen Sondheim), Best Actress in a Musical (Alexis Smith), Best Scenic Design (Boris Aronson), Best Costume Design (Florence Klotz), Best Lighting Design (Tharon Musser), Best Choreography (Michael Bennett), and Best Direction of a Musical (Harold Prince and Bennett).
"I saw the original production two weeks after it opened on Broadway [on April 4, 1971]," says John McIlwee, "and I fell in love with the show the moment the first note of music sounded. I realized it was breaking new ground creatively for the American musical.
"I have designed this musical professionally before," McIlwee notes, "and I have performed in a concert version [of Follies] quite a few years ago at Theatre in the Park."
Robert's Reviews' Triangle Theater Man of the Year for 2003 says, "[Follies] beautifully explores three worlds at once: the contemporary world, set in 1971, of the principal characters as they come back to the last reunion of aging Follies girls in their old theater as it is about to be torn down to make way for a parking lot[;] their past, set in 1941, when they were young and the world was filled with possibilities for their own version of the American Dream[;] and... the world that evokes the 'follies' of the mind performed by the principals."
McIlwee declares, "It isn't often that a musical has the dense richness of this one and the bittersweet thematic approach of the book's author. The music by Sondheim is a triumph! He has developed a score that explores the style of every important composer of the century ... from Berlin to Kern to Porter. Then he has written 'book' songs that further the plot with amazing clarity and ingenuity... a brilliant combination! Who wouldn't want to direct it?"
John McIlwee summarizes the show's plot as follows. "Two couples, approaching middle age, return to the scene of their youthful beginnings," he says, "confronting themselves and each other in one night of remembrance and emotional upheaval. The smart, brittle Ben (Alex Miller) and Phyllis (Sara Shrock) are searching for 'roads not taken' and something of their once-perfect marriage. Sally (JoAnne Dickinson) and Buddy (Fred Gorelick) are there in hopes of finding something that never existed in the first place. A stunning variety of characters comment musically on the theme during the party. Carlotta (Dorothy Brown) became a big star with a very realistic view of what the years have brought her and the whirl of lives lived well — or not — provide a poignant background for her famous declaration: 'I'm Still Here!'"
The veteran actor and director claims, "This is the single most challenging musical because the staging of three separate, yet connected, worlds must be clear at all times. It is also a huge show with a cast of 50. [It is] interesting and a constant surprise each moment with so many different personalities coming together to create one unified production."
He adds, "The setting, for most of the evening, is an abandoned theater with old platforms and theatrical equipment as the major décor. Corky Pratt has designed this space to magically accommodate many extremely different types of musical numbers, and it works beautifully. When it finally changes to a golden exaggerated old Follies setting with lots of sparkle, it is a shock as it should be!
"The lighting is dramatic," McIlwee says, "evocative and very theatrical. Seeing the lighting instruments is part of Terri Janney's wildly imaginative concept."
McIlwee adds, "The costumes run the gamut from 1970s to 1940s [outfits] to [glad rags for] mysterious and glamorous showgirls. It was a ball [to create them], and creating the varied worlds was a real challenge. Lots of beads and sequins and lamé... bright and bold at times and dark and indistinct for other scenes.
"It has been a directorial pleasure," McIlwee says, "to mount such a production with this cast and crew. The variety and the individual talents of all really 'fleshed-out' the world I hoped to create[, and represents] a unique blend of many artists working together toward one interpretation."
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Follies Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 12-14 and 19-21, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 15 and 22, at 3 p.m. in Stewart Theatre on the second floor of NCSU's Talley Student Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. $12-$16 ($6 NCSU students). 919/515-1100. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/follies.htm. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=3638. Sondheim.com: http://www.sondheim.com/shows/follies/.