Magazine article The Sondheim Review

True Follies

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

True Follies

Article excerpt

The Oakland East Bay Symphony mangles a classic

Like the fictional Weismnn Theatre of Follies, Oakland's Paramount Theatre reigned as a sparkling Art Deco shrine before falling into disuse, disrepair and the potential for destruction. In 1973, the Paramount was reborn, magnificently restored and now home to the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Placing Stephen Sondheim's legendary gem in this Tiffany setting, surrounded by a cluster of stars, seemed like a stroke of genius. Unfortunately, from the moment maestro Michael Morgan took the podium, genius departed and only the stroke remained - sluggish performances, absent direction and meandering tempi from an upstage symphony out of syne with downstage artists.

Concert renderings are not intended to give a full theatrical experience. But that means presenters must create a different kind of theatricality to serve the piece, the performers and, ultimately, the audience. From start to finish, it was unclear whether this was a symphony event to lure theatregoers or a piece of theatre to vary the symphony subscriber's diet. Both audiences lost.

The first warning bells went off when Morgan began his stilted, coy comments with the announcement that sometimes there would be supertitles, sometimes not, and that he wasn't going to tell us when or why. Supertitles? This was an American musical sung in modern idiom, not Die Fledermaus. The result was annoying, at best distracting and at worst serving only to kill the jokes in Sondheim's witty lyrics by flashing punch lines before the singer finished the phrase.

Morgan's next announcement was that different performers would sing various roles. Another disastrous choice, especially when it became clear that James Goldman's book had not only been abridged, but tossed out completely. Follies became a showgirl without legs, randomly checker-boarding the songs: "The Road You Didn't Take" was tossed to the erstwhile Young Ben, "Don't Look At Me" lobbed to the only occasionally haughty Phyllis. This destroyed the possibility of emotionally connecting with any character's story arc.

This conceit might have worked had the production eschewed any attempt at staging and simply lined up a row of chairs, with singers stepping up as needed. Instead, two banquet tables were placed in front of the orchestra with four chairs each, populated by a young group (Ben Jones, Mindy Lym, Katy Stephan, Greg Zema) and a not-so-young one (Tami Dahbura, Christian Nova, Clark Sterling, Darla Wigginton). …

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