Between one crumbing theater and two unhappy marriages stand legions of ghosts.
Somewhere between the specters of showgirls past are the shadows of loves lost, mistaken and unrecognized, surrounded by dreams that seemed too good to be true and others that never had a chance of getting off the ground.
In Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” a last chance to visit the venue that brought them together gives two couples a chance to remember their past triumphs — and confront a lifetime of missed cues and unhappy endings.
Live Arts’ new production, which opens its 29th season, opens Friday; Saturday brings a special performance as part of the Follies Affair, a black-tie-optional event with dinner and celebration. The cast and creative team are savoring the show’s rich music and diving into its lights and shadows.
“You know the ghost light you leave on in the theater so the ghosts can see where they’re going?” director Robert Chapel said with a chuckle, referring to a time-honored theater tradition. “Well, you see them in Sondheim’s ‘Follies.’’’
It’s the former Heritage Theatre Festival producing artistic director’s third show for Live Arts; he was at the helm on “Nine” in the Gibson Theater and years earlier for “Falsettos” at the theater’s former East Market Street home.
For his 140th show, Chapel has surrounded himself with proven teammates. Choreographer Perry Medlin is on board, and Chapel also has joined forces with music director Greg Harris for more than 30 previous productions.
They’re part of a team striving to capture the delicate balance between life’s instants of glamour and what can be endless stretches of fruitless day-to-day striving. Audience members who can’t wait to see the final numbers of vintage showstoppers might miss a consistent attention to detail that sets the stage for the unfolding story.
“Tricia Emlet and her assistant, Mimi Halpern, are doing a fantastic job with the costumes,” Chapel said. “Three-quarters of the show is set in 1971, and she’s recreating things that older women would wear to a reunion in the 1970s.”
The contrast of splendor and decay inspired legendary Broadway producer and director Harold Prince to resurrect the dazzling world of the Ziegfeld Follies era for “Follies.”
“Hal Prince got this idea after he saw Gloria Swanson in all her finery amidst a theater that was being torn down,” Chapel said.
Characters in the show mourn what might have been along with what was. The story underneath all of Sondheim’s memorable songs touches the nostalgic, the melancholy and the mundane.
“There’s not much of a plot, like ‘Company,’’’ Chapel said. “People come to a reunion, they have a few drinks and they go home.
“It’s about the follies that people have committed all their lives. It’s really about the relationships of these two couples; they’ve both had very unhappy marriages, and they show up at this reunion very unhappy.”
The cast features Geri Carlson Sauls as Phyllis Rogers Stone, Jeff Dreyfus as Benjamin Stone, Karen Honeycutt as Sally Durant Plummer and David Becker as Buddy Plummer. Phyllis and Sally are former showgirls from Weismann’s Follies; Ben and Buddy were school buddies who fell in love with the showgirls they later married — and others along the way.
Their younger selves play important roles as well, so look for Apollo Young as Young Buddy, Greyson Taylor as Young Ben, Emma Shirey as Young Sally and Parker Nelson as Young Phyllis.
What brings people to “Follies” — and keeps them happy — is the music.
“More than anything, this is really zeroing in around the music. The songs are just so good,” Chapel said, mentioning “Losing My Mind” and “I’m Still Here” as songs that seem to linger with listeners. “There are great songs that people will recognize.”
“Follies” even has some appealing pastiche numbers that sound as if they could’ve been written back in the 1920s by George Gershwin or Irving Berlin. “It’s amazing how Sondheim was able to capture that,” Chapel said.
Also in the cast are Pat Owen as impresario Dimitri Weismann, Stephanie Hess as Stella Deems, Wendy Novicoff as Carlotta Campion, Tiffany Smith as Emily Whitman, James Scales as Theodore Whitman, Mimi Halpern as Solange La Fitte, Kate Monaghan as Hattie Walker, Phyllis Koch-Sheras as Heidi Schiller, Jennifer La Fleur as Dee Dee West, Jaime Kurtz as Meredith Lane and Linda Zuby as Christine Donovan.
Ensemble members include Kristen Gleason, Riley Gonzalez, Lauren Bolding, Lottye Lockhart, Michelle Majorin, Claire Netemeyer, Ike Anderson, Thad Lane, Will Owen and Daniel Smith.
Chapel’s team also includes producer and sound engineer Kathleen Mueller, assistant directors Lauren Elens and Tim White, co-production stage managers Chris Kelly and Ray Smith, assistant stage manager Colleen Roney, dance captain Claire Netemeyer, scenic designer Dan Feigert, assistant scenic director Jackson Key, lighting designer Robert Benjamin, associate lighting designer Skye Devlin, costume and crafting artists Bruce Young and Jen Lawless, hair and makeup designers Laura Slack and Erica Haskins, co-properties designer Leena Miller, rehearsal accompanist Kip McCharen, and lightboard operators Alexis Malec and Dave Goldstein.