Sunday, November 11, 2012

Follies, Baldwin Wallace University

 The clueless former Senator of Alaska Ted Stevens once described the Internet as “a series of tubes” sending information from one place to another. He was wrong about the Internet, but he may have stumbled on a metaphor that works for Baldwin Wallace University’s musical theater department.

It seems that this program has a series of tubes that sends talented young performers directly to the Broadway stage. And the reason for that is on full display in Follies, the iconic James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim musical now at the Kleist Center on the BW campus.

This haunting play, studded with glorious Sondheim tunes, takes place on an old Broadway stage that’s ready for the wrecking ball. But first, a reunion is held for the old performers, many of whom appear in ghostly forms.

It’s a challenging and daunting work, brought to vibrant life by a huge cast under the direction of Victoria Bussert. When Bussert is on her game, as she is here, there is no one who can stage a production with more grand scope and yet maintain a craftperson’s attention to detail.

The show revolves around two couples whose marriages have faded into irrelevance. Buddy & Sally and Phyllis & Ben are now on in age, lamenting past decisions, infidelities and missed opportunities.

These roles are double cast among BW’s talented students. The older versions of this foursome on the second night of the run—Clare Hoews Eisentrout (Sally), Ciara Renee (Phyllis), Alex Syiek (Ben) and James Penca (Buddy) all performed with clarity and specificity.

The only missing element was the middle age of the characters, inaccessible to these young performers, that informs so much of Sondheim’s lyrics and Goldman’s book. But these remarkable young actors maximize every other aspect of their portrayals. And it’s quite likely that the students who share these characters on other nights do exactly the same.

The sprawling cast also includes several BW faculty members, who turn in sparkling cameos. But the overwhelming impact of this production is often due to the elegant set design by Jeff Herrmann, the sumptuous costumes by Charlotte Yetman and lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger’s evocative touches.

This Follies is a feast for the eyes and ears, staged with a gloss and professionalism that few theaters in the region can match. And you can include the touring Broadway shows in that mix.

Through November 18 at Baldwin Wallace University, Kleist Center, 95 Bagley Road, Berea, 440-826-2240.

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