Ghosts gather in the shadows as former follies performers assemble for a reunion. These specters in the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical “Follies” are memories of the performers’ younger selves, and in at least a few cases, they’ve been over-romanticized; the past they represent prevents their now-middle-aged counterparts from living in the present.
It’s haunting material, drenched in regret, yearning for renewal. But it’s imbued with more hope than usual in a semi-staged concert presentation that concludes its three-performance run tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. That’s because the ghosts are portrayed by teenage students from the 16-month-old California Conservatory of the Arts, and their older counterparts are played by the sort of performers they hope to grow into -- a luminous lineup of guest artists that includes Betty Garrett, Julie Wilson, Teri Ralston, Stephanie Zimbalist and original “Follies” cast members Harvey Evans and Kurt Peterson.
The performances are part of the San Juan Capistrano-based conservatory’s mission to provide its students with professional-level opportunities and enable them to learn from veterans of the field. Young people are mostly relegated to the background of this 1971 musical, but the students have learned well from back there. As the shadow chorus in a re-creation of the Ziegfeld Follies-type number “Who’s That Woman?” and as the fantasy sweethearts in “Loveland,” they match their elders in commitment if not maturity.
The professionals in the principal roles had rehearsed just 40 hours, at most, yet they performed Thursday from memory (only John Raitt, in the nonsinging role of the follies impresario, read from the script). Working from the 1971 script, director Ralston, a Sondheim veteran and conservatory faculty member, and choreographer Ellen Prince have conjured the original Harold Prince-Michael Bennett staging while layering on some insightful ideas of their own.
With the cast dressed in rented spangles and with Michael Borth leading 20 professional instrumentalists through the Jonathan Tunick orchestrations, the performance came off with a few shaky moments but an overall sparkle of panache.
“Follies” focuses in particular on two couples in crisis. The women were best friends in the follies; their husbands were stage-door Johnnies. This presentation induces a pang by having the now-graying Evans and Peterson advance to the grown-up versions of the husband-ghosts they portrayed in the original. Ralston and Zimbalist portray the wives; students Richard Cerato, Thomas Sabin, Kayley FitzMaurice and Maren Kirlin are the respective ghosts, mimicking their grown-up counterparts to wonderfully eerie effect. FitzMaurice is especially vivid as young Sally, conveying the same bubbly yet delusional qualities as counterpart Ralston.
Embodying the spirit of perseverance that, in the end, makes this musical so powerful, Garrett is fleet-footed and vivacious in her nostalgic “Broadway Baby” number, and Wilson brings down the house with the survival anthem “I’m Still Here,” her raspy but vital voice the very incarnation of the song’s message of living fiercely, with no regret.
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: Today, 8 p.m.
Contact: (949) 854-4646
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes