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Ghost stories
Follies and The Fabulous Invalid

Boston theaters have been hit by an onslaught of theater ghosts, but in the case of Follies (presented by Overture Productions at John Hancock Hall; remaining performances November 21 and 22), they’re hardly blithe spirits. The landmark 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical about a reunion of aging showgirls practically drips regret. Not to mention valor and pizzazz — all present and accounted for in this concert staging directed by Lyric Stage Company of Boston honcho Spiro Veloudos. The production boasts a 22-piece on-stage orchestra, Tony winner Len Cariou, and the best tonsils in Boston.

The orchestra, which is conducted by musical director Michael Joseph, does not always play in tune. Cariou, who won a 1979 Tony as the original Sweeney Todd (and was quite credible in his last outing here, as Niels Bohr in the national tour of Copenhagen), phones in his performance. And the microphones prove a true enemy of the people. But among the Boston-area singing actors who crowd the stage, there are performers who will knock your socks off — though none will leave you as barefoot as Leigh Barrett does. Her determined and emotive second-act rendition of "Losing My Mind," in a long red halter dress that should banish her previous frock to Good Will, is spectacular.

Of course, the idea of reviving the difficult and prohibitively lavish Follies in whatever form is pretty spectacular. The original production, with its cast of 50, ran 522 performances on Broadway but has become the stuff of myth (its frazzled, fabled formation is the subject of then-gofer, now–Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization honcho Ted Chapin’s recent tome Everything Was Possible). A 2001 Broadway revival ran only a few months.

Set in a ruined theater that once housed a Ziegfeld-like phantasma of leggy chorines but is about to become a parking lot, the show has since its 1971 Boston tryout fielded its passionate advocates and those not quite convinced, despite the dazzlingly dissonant, showy Sondheim score. Centered on a quartet of middle-aged people who married wrong, James Goldman’s book is, even trimmed, heavy on melodramatic cliché. And with its once glamorous women trapped in broken dreams and housewifery, it seems dated. But the original production (along with Company the grandparent of concept musicals) used design and fantasy to dazzling effect as the characters, in living color, and the ghosts of their former selves, in black and white, criss-crossed. Then there are the musical numbers: haunting, vicious, and novelty, all boasting Sondheim’s pungent lyrics.

Inspired by New York’s Encores! series, Overture began two years ago with a reconsideration of The Baker’s Wife that imported Judy Kuhn. As Follies’ vituperatively unhappy magnate Ben Stone, Cariou supplies a bigger name, and his Sondheim credentials are unassailable. But he’s outshone here by the locals, including Maryann Zschau, who as Stone’s underappreciated, dulling trophy wife Phyllis dexterously trips through "Ballad of Lucy and Jessie"; Frank Gayton, who as the Barrett character’s two-timing, still-torching spouse brings baggy-pants panache to "Buddy’s Blues"; Kathy St. George flogging the ooh-la-la out of "Ah, Paris"; smooth-and-tangy Mary Callanan saluting her inner "Broadway Baby"; and Bobbie Steinbach in the Yvonne De Carlo role effortlessly selling Sondheim’s rumbling paean to show-biz survival, "I’m Still Here."

The ghosts in The Fabulous Invalid (presented by Emerson Stage at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through November 22) aren’t too happy either. Married diva actors, they are, while still breathing, performing a 1903 melodrama in a brand new theater called the Majestic when a catwalk falls, pretty much turning them into the theater rubble that inspired Follies. The gimmick here is that this 1938 flop by the Pulitzer-winning team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart has been adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Three Viewings, Scotland Road), who was commissioned by Emerson Stage, to parallel loosely the history of the Cutler Majestic, which owner Emerson College has recently returned to glory and which celebrates its centennial this year.

Hence the fatal accident occurs in 1903, and the spirits of Royal Family–esque stars Laurence Brooks and Paula Kingsley haunt the theater for the ensuing century, witnesses to the theater’s multiple incarnations (vaudeville palace, porn house, live-television studio, non-profit born from the ashes). A theater-history tour not totally tied to the Majestic, the play is redeemed by a handful of laugh-out-loud theater in-jokes (one dazzling tirade threading together memorable lines from no fewer than 40 works for the stage) and winning performances by guest stars Steve Hendrickson as the pompous, scathing Brooks and Alice Ripley, star of Broadway’s Side Show, as his flouncingly theater-loving, spectral spouse, Kingsley. Obie-winning Emerson Stage producing director Melia Bensussen helms the enterprise, which is otherwise populated by students, including Rob Morrison, who sparkles as a spry supernatural stage manager with one foot in Equity and the other in purgatory.

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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