Follies, the landmark 1971 Broadway musical about a group of former follies girls who reunite at their soon-to-be-demolished theatre for one last look at the past, is receiving an intimate revival by Astoria Performing Arts Center this month—giving audiences an up-close look at a musical typically known for its large scale staging and lavish production elements.
Running through May 26 at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Astoria, Queens (a 20-minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan), Follies is an ambitious and bittersweet undertaking for APAC Artistic Director Dev Bondarin and Executive Director Jesse Marchese.
The musical marks APAC’s last production at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, which has served as its performance space for the last 10 seasons.
“I'm always intrigued with pieces that deal with memory and time and how time functions on stage,” says Bondarin. “And this coupled with the fact that this is our last show at this church where APAC has performed for the past 10 seasons... I spent a sleepless night thinking about what show to do, and I finally went, ‘Oh my God, maybe we should just bite the bullet and do Follies.’ And then I was up all night just thinking, ‘It's so big. How do I figure out? How do we do it with under 30 people?’”
Featuring a cast of 26, the Equity showcase production features union and non-union actors who range in age from up-and-coming actors in their early 20s to veteran performers in their 80s.
“What’s so wonderful about this production, especially in a tight, small theatre scope, is that the room is populated with a wide range of people and experiences,” she says. “It was challenging to cast. No, no question about it. You know, younger actors are looking for experiences in the city, so there were a lot of young actors at our open call. Thankfully, there were also older actors who read the casting call—and what happened was what we were hoping for—they said, 'Maybe this is my opportunity to be in Follies.'
“And Follies is a show that made people want to make the effort to travel to Queens to rehearse at night and on weekends, because of what the show is, and what the show means to theatre people.”
The theatre has lined up a principal cast of APAC veterans, and some Broadway talent as well, including Tina Stafford (national tour of Once) as Sally, Bruce Sabath (2006 Broadway revival of Company) as Ben, Marcie Henderson (APAC’s Raisin, Allegro) as Phyllis, and Greg Horton (APAC's Raisin, Merrily We Roll Along) as Buddy.
“I kind of thought we were crazy to do this, but I think everyone's rising to the challenge of it and it means a lot to us that these really, really talented people want to come out here and work with APAC,” Marchese says.
APAC has garnered multiple New York Innovative Theatre Awards for their technically ambitious productions, including Ragtime and The Human Comedy, which seamlessly transformed the church’s gymnasium into a 99-seat black box proscenium theatre.
With Follies, the entire space involves both the actors and the audience. “We extend the action out beyond the proscenium into the entire space,” Bondarin says. “With a space this intimate, we want the audience to really feel like the Weismann Theatre is all around them. An added nuance in our approach—with Young Sally, Ben, Buddy and Phyllis, we are putting the audience inside the experience of the memories as well, because they are happening all around them, or right in front of them. This is going to be a different kind of Follies.”
Producing Follies was more than a bucket list artistic venture for Bondarin and Marchese, though like all theatre people, they say they are also drawn to its meta-theatricality, show-stopping music, and complex material.
“I love what the show is inherently,” Bondarin says, “but something that Jesse and I have had been talking about a lot, this was not something that I necessarily would've said had we talked three months ago, but this show is about resiliency—especially for these women.”
“Follies is about the resiliency of women, which I think is really interesting and an important thing to be talking about right now,” says Marchese. “It's about women who had this career in the follies—and what was the follies, but putting women up on display?— and they had dreams of their own. Maybe those dreams didn't come true and something else happened for them, but they bounced back.”
“Phyllis says, ‘Hope doesn't grow on trees. We make it for ourselves.’ That's really resonating with all of us,” Bondarin says. “It's resonating because of the political climate we're in, but it’s also resonating to APAC because we are losing our home, but we are not going anywhere.”
While an official announcement has not been made, APAC is in conversation with several Astoria arts organizations and developers to find its new home. New York City Council Members Costa Constantinides and James Van Bramer have also put their support behind APAC and ensuring its future as one of Queens’ vital arts institutions. “They care so much about this theatre, and that means the world to us and to our audiences.”
“We have a really, really loyal, wonderful local audience. There's a lot of people in the area, in the neighborhood who really relish being able to walk three blocks away and see high quality theatre for $20,” Marchese says. “That matters to us. We want to keep doing high quality theatre that's really affordable.”
Visit APACNY.org. The Good Shepherd United Methodist Church is located at 30-44 Crescent St. (at 30th Road), Astoria, NY 11102. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, and Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM.