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Elaine and I grew up together, but only just recently met....

Berkshire Living to Cease Publication
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[MUSIC REVIEW] Avalon Quartet in Close Encounters at Mahaiwe
Review by Seth Rogovoy

[MUSIC REVIEW] Avalon Quartet in Close Encounters at Mahaiwe
Review by Seth Rogovoy

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Review by Seth Rogovoy

[FILM REVIEW] Bill Cunningham New York
Review by Seth Rogovoy

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(Theater Review) Stephen Sondheim


Berkshire Theatre Festival
Stockbridge, Mass.
through July 9, 2005

Barrington Stage Company
Sheffield, Mass.
through July 16

It's the summer of Sondheim, as the great American stage composer and lyricist turns 75, and theater and concert venues choose to mark the occasion with programming by the venerable Broadway icon. Later this summer, Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., gets into the act. But for now, two of the region's top summer theaters go head to head with two of the most unlikely of summer-stock stagings.

Sondheim isn't easy -- for singers, actors, directors, or audiences more than anyone -- so give Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Festival, the directors, performers, and the audiences most of all, credit for attempting these shows, from the point of view of the stage and the point of view of the seats in the house.

And the good news is there is much reward for that attempt, especially at Barrington Stage, where FOLLIES is being given the complete, fully staged treatment, with big, bold sets and set changes, professional lighting and costumes, exciting and imaginative choreography, and above all, Broadway-level talent throughout the cast.

The premise of FOLLIES, of course, is a 1971 reunion of aging showgirls from the '40s and before. It's all just that, however -- a thinly disguised premise, or excuse, for a musical about looking back, about aging and reflecting and, mostly, second-guessing one's life choices, wondering what it would have been like if one had chosen differently. Much of this revolves around two central couples, and none of them are particularly sympathetic. In fact, a viewer has little sympathy or empathy for anyone in this play other than the performers, but they fully rise to the task and inhabit these unsympathetic, self-centered characters with aplomb, making you love them not for who they are, but for what they can do -- sing, dance, and make you laugh.

That's show biz, after all, and boy do they work hard, as well as the rest of the cast, which includes big Broadway names like Marni Nixon and Donna McKechnie, but it doesn't really matter, because there are a hundred scene-stealing performances in a show that will test your mettle but leave you the richer for, example, Diane Houghton's "Broadway Baby," or the "Dance d'Amour," expertly choreographed by Lara Teeter who, for my mind, steals the show with his own psychedelic vaudeville routine during "Buddy's Folly."

The thing is, once you realize that none of the action is meant to be taken literally, and that it all is really just taking place in the minds of these characters -- imagine eavesdropping at a high school reunion where you don't hear what everyone is saying, but instead, what they're all thinking -- then the sailing is smoother.

It's also disturbing, and meant to be. FOLLIES could well have been the first complete Freudian musical, and it's no walk in the park with George, Sunday or any other day. What it is, however, is a terrific excuse for some of Stephen Sondheim's greatest work, his most un-Broadway-like excursions into the tormented psyches of modern-day men and women, built upon an eclectic array of musical theater styles ranging from the aforementioned vaudeville to blues, jazz, mid-century pop, Central European cabaret and Kurt Weill, mainstream Broadway, and, of course, that unique genre that is Sondheim himself.

SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM is the lesser of the two shows, but that is as much by design as intent. It's a revue -- a catalog of Sondheim's "greatest hits" with a few lesser ones thrown in, and at BTF it is given a minimalist, stripped-down production, with a cast of just three singers who hardly dance, and one somewhat annoying, cloying narrator played by Jessica Walter, who is apparently something of a celebrity but who seemed distracted the night I saw the show.

The performances will all earnest -- somewhat overly so -- and the singers were all talented. But the show lacked a unifying aesthetic, something that would make it more than just a night of cabaret featuring the songs of Sondheim. The second act was better than the first, so if you go and find yourself disappointed by the time intermission rolls around, stick around -- it gets better. The songs are given more characterization in the second half and there is more interaction among the performers.

And, of course, with talented, even if somewhat miscast or misdirected singers, it's hard to lose with an evening of Sondheim's greatest hits.

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