Why is it productions of landmark musicals so often come in pairs? A few seasons back we were treated to duelling Candides, and now, fast on the heels of the Lyric Stage's "chamber" version of Follies (original poster at left), there's a full-scale rendition of the famous Sondheim juggernaut at Boston Conservatory this weekend, with a crack student cast. Only this time out, the huge production numbers are given their elaborate due, and the sheer size and scope of the show validate Sondheim's (and Hal Prince's) ambitions in a way the Lyric couldn't hope to do. Still, Boston Conservatory commits a few "follies" of its own in producing Follies.
The Conservatory's physical plant - i.e., its theatre - is famously inadequate to the demands of the shows presented there, and this time, the large orchestra required is plunked down right before the stage (no, there's no pit), requiring that all the singers be miked. Which results in not only a gulf between audience and performer, but a very loud sound mix with frequent balance problems. Intriguingly, the echo from the mikes sometimes conjured just the right atmosphere of eerie reminiscence - but in general, the kids on stage deserved much better than this. (The president of Boston Conservatory spoke before the curtain to inform us that help is on the way, in the form of an extensive renovation, but money is still needed - more info on how to help is here.)
But if you can stand all the blare, there are several vocal performances to savor here, and some strong acting and dancing, too. For once all the songs were in the right key, and high top notes posed no problem for the cast (o rare!). "Beautiful Girls," "Who's That Woman?," and in particular the extended "Loveland" sequence were transformed by the forces marshalled to put them over, and were aided immeasurably by Michelle Chassé's apt choreography (particularly in the gigantic tap number) and David Cabral's gorgeous, Ziegfeldesque costumes. Director Neil Donohoe didn't keep the long first half in tight-enough focus (I almost wished the Lyric's Spiro Veloudos had dropped by to crack the whip), but he had intriguing ideas for "Loveland" (including a poignantly ironic tableau for "Losing My Mind"), and managed well the interpolation of past and present that is so central to the show's haunting effect.
It would be unfair to review student performances against professional standards - except I think it's also unfair to ignore students when they surpass those standards; so I'll pass out bouquets to several of these young performers. The two female leads were both startlingly strong - Lauren Lukacek gave Sally Durant an almost frighteningly perky romantic naiveté, while Hannah Jane McMurray styled the even trickier Phyllis Rogers into a kind of glamorous ice sculpture. The leading men didn't fare as well, but while one of them, Bud Webber, didn't find his feet until his role turned to pure song and dance, once it did he was all appealing energy. There were similarly engaging turns in the famous novelty numbers by Haley Selmon, Babs Rubenstein and Lindsey Larson, as well as a spirited one from Kristina Elizabeth Morales that was somewhat undermined by her mike. All in all, there was enough sparkle on stage to make up for the occasional stumble, and those with a hankering to see Follies in something like the shape its creators intended are advised to hustle on over to Hemenway St. - you may never get another chance like this one.