Credit: Liz Lauren

If you’ve never understood the adulation musical theater enthusiasts heap on anything Stephen Sondheim has ever written, hummed, whistled, or doodled, go see Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s revival of Follies.

The show is no masterpiece. It’s got a mostly creaky book by James Goldman and a contrived, tissue-thin plot. Sondheim himself called it “all atmosphere.” In fact, almost nothing works—except the bulk of Sondheim’s score. And that works with such resounding, at times inexplicable effectiveness that it’s tempting to think he can do no wrong.

But then midway through the second act the score collapses into overwrought hokum. It turns out that no matter how ingenious a craftsman Sondheim may be, he can still fuck up a really good thing.

Follies takes place on an evening in 1971, at the condemned Broadway theater where a long-running vaudeville spectacle called “Weismann’s Follies” closed 30 years before. Onetime impresario Dimitri Weismann is holding a reunion for his old showgirls and their husbands. The dozen-plus guests mill around, reminisce, perform their old routines, and generally wax elegiac. Spirits of the showgirls’ former selves skulk about, occasionally performing invisibly alongside their middle-aged counterparts. Two deeply unhappy married couples—Sally and Buddy Plummer and Phyllis and Ben Stone—carry the show’s emotional weight, singing their way through their regrets, resentments, disillusionments, and delusions.

Sounds awful, I know. And the perfectly drab opening director Gary Griffin supplies does little to suggest otherwise. The ghost chorines parade uncharismatically about until the guests assemble to spoon out exposition and waste time. Even the first big production number, “Beautiful Girls”—during which the former showgirls are introduced—is a thrillingly sung, breathtakingly staged hunk of dead weight.

But then Sally runs into Ben, the old flame she’s been dying to see. Dressed like a day-old birthday cake and twitching with cheerful energy, she sings, “Hi, Ben / No, don’t look at me / Please not just yet / Why am I here? / This is crazy / No, don’t look at me.” Griffin plants the pair far down on Chicago Shakespeare’s deep thrust stage so that they’re virtually surrounded by audience, and keeps them nearly motionless so there’s nothing to distract us. The skittering lyric darts through a lilting, slightly discordant melody—and a complex, nuanced, ambivalent psychology bursts forth.

The same emotional complexity holds sway throughout the first three-quarters of Follies, every time a performer starts to sing. In one graceful, discomfiting song after another, Sally, Phyllis, Buddy, and Ben chart their 30-year journeys from youthful exuberance to middle-aged stagnation, revealing ever deepening layers of despair, guilt, regret, and self-contempt. Practicality and self-preservation have funneled them into lives of compromise, as Ben sings in “The Road You Didn’t Take”: “One has regrets / Which one forgets / And as the years go on / The road you didn’t take / Hardly comes to mind / Does it?”

Yet the decorum demanded by the gala event they’re attending—not to mention Sondheim’s taut musical structures—forces them to maintain their poise even as their beleaguered inner selves claw toward daylight. It’s harrowing and exhilarating to watch.

As a counterpoint to the lead foursome’s contemporary, neurosis-soaked numbers, Sondheim created a shadow score of “old songs” for the aging chorus girls to belt out. His crafty pastiche of Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen (plus a pinch of Victor Herbert) ingeniously evokes the world the party guests have ruefully left behind. The astonishingly talented women of the cast knock song after song out of the park and in the process recreate their characters’ former selves with such specificity and veracity that the decked-out ghost chorines look like cheap, unnecessary decorations.

But nothing in Follies is more astonishing than Sondheim’s ability to keep his two stylistically opposed scores in perfect equipoise. He somehow manages to juxtapose songs that sound as though they were written several decades apart without creating a moment of sonic discord.

Griffin expertly shepherds his actors through the show’s intricate musical labyrinth, keeping his stage pictures as still and simple as possible. Tensions among Sally, Buddy, Phyllis, and Ben build until they’re all on the verge of collapse (and maybe even psychosis, since they’re suddenly able to see the ghosts of their former selves). But just when Sondheim seems ready to deliver the most sophisticated, emotionally intricate finale in American musical theater history, he opts for the cheap and obvious instead—a sort of vaudevillian group nervous breakdown. The action shifts to a surreal Loveland where each of the four leads performs a big, overwritten, nightmarish, irony-soaked number revealing his or her emotional state. Trouble is, their emotional states have already been compellingly revealed. The finale merely restates the obvious. It’s a massive assault on the audience’s intelligence.

Then again, maybe a badly botched ending befits Follies. While the characters ruminate on the lives they might’ve led, we can lament the show that might’ve been if Sondheim had only stuck to the road he was on.