By Richard Schultz, Feb. 26, 2015.
Phillip Fazio, director of the upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, is living the dream. He has a multitalented cast, including Broadway veterans, a experienced production team and an iconic musical that is rarely produced locally.
Follies is a theatrical event that’s attracting some of the finest talent in the Valley, including Kelli James Chase as Carlotta Campion and Patti Davis Suarez as Hattie Walker.
Chase was in the original Broadway cast of Les Miserables and became the first replacement in the role of Eponine. Suarez made her Broadway debut in How Now, Dow Jones, appeared in the original Broadway production of Promises, Promises and joined the Broadway production of Applause, performing the role of Eve Harrington opposite Lauren Bacall and later Anne Baxter.
The cast also includes Valley favorites Rusty Ferracane, who plays the central role of Ben Stone, and Shari Watts as Phyllis Rogers Stone.
On the surface, this musical is about a reunion of retired performers that have come together to meet one last time in a crumbling theater on the night before it is to be torn down.
A closer look reveals that this story is actually a surreal, heart-wrenching examination of life, theater and the great mystery of “the road you didn’t take.” The score is considered by some to be Sondheim’s greatest masterpiece, overflowing with such classic songs as “Losing My Mind,” “I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings” and “Broadway Baby.”
Fazio shared his thoughts on directing this legendary show which opened Feb. 20 at Theater Works, 44 years to the day after the very first public performance of Follies during its out-of-town tryout in Boston.
Echo: How did you prepare for the task of taking on this monumental musical?
Fazio: I did a ton of research over the past few months, mostly focusing on the original 1971 production. I wanted to find out anything and everything I could about this epic musical. Luckily for me, Ted Chapin, who worked on the original production, published a book, Everything Was Possible, all about the creation of Follies. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes journal that I highly recommend for anyone even remotely interested in theater.
Echo: Because Follies showcases a storyline from another era, how did you immerse yourself and cast in the period of the show?
Fazio: The main action of Follies takes place over the span of one night at a reunion party in 1971. However, there are different memory scenes that take place decades earlier. We basically had to capture the era between 1920 and 1971. I read up on Ziegfeld, the impresario whose character and style is greatly borrowed for this musical framework. Our choreographer, Misha Shields and musical director, Steve Hilderbrand, also did research to make sure our actors are moving and singing in period appropriate manners.
Echo: You have a terrific cast of well-known and popular Valley performers. How did that come about?
Fazio: Casting this show was by far the most difficult casting process. We had an incredible turnout and it was absolutely heartbreaking not to cast some truly stellar local performers that I have admired for many, many years. The cast we have assembled is the finest group of actors I have ever worked with. The production team and I have been absolutely blown away by their work throughout rehearsals. Directing this show is a dream come true and with a cast like this is such a thrill.
Echo: What are some of the challenges in mounting such a large musical?
Fazio: It’s an epic show. The original Broadway production had about 50 actors on stage and around 30 musicians in the pit. Our cast includes 37 actors and 15 musicians. These are huge numbers by Arizona musical theater standards. Not to mention the massive set and elaborate costumes that are mandatory for any production. Theater Works is very aware of the risks involved, but they firmly believe that this is a show Arizona audiences should have the opportunity to see. I have no doubt that our collective work is going to pay off in a tremendous way.
Echo: How does Follies still speak to today’s audiences even though it was written more than 40 years ago?
Fazio: Although Follies originally opened in 1971, it is still as relevant, if not more so today. The main themes are timeless. It’s about the regret for the things you didn’t do, the pain of unrequited love and acceptance of growing older. Plus a majority of the songs have found their way into the standard American songbook. I doubt a show this deep and well written will ever stop being relevant.
Echo: Explain why this is a not-to-be-missed show?
Fazio: This show honestly feels like the perfect storm of an amazing cast, crew, designers and production team coming together to create a once in a lifetime theatrical experience. It took 44 years for Follies to get to Arizona and honestly it might be another 44 years until another local theater company does it again.