On Stage: “Follies”

My trips to Broadway this year have been hit or miss (mostly miss).  Last week, I saw a show that I was very excited for, a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.  I’m happy to report that it met my expectations.

Still in previews at the Marquis Theater, right in the heart of Times Square (an appropriate location given the story), this production of Follies comes straight from a lauded run at the Kennedy Center in Washington.  Follies takes place in the early 1970s, and is set in the fictional, decaying Weismann Theater in New York.  On the eve of its destruction, the performers who once sang and dance across its stage and chattered in the wings have gathered for a final reunion.  Chief among them are four friends: former roommates and famed “Weismann Girls”, Sally and Phyllis, and their respective husbands, Buddy and Ben.  There’s over forty years of history between these characters, and among many others, and in the course of a single evening it all catches up to them.  Leave it to Stephen Sondheim to be the one to have assigned physical and emotional side effects to simple nostalgia.

Sally (Bernadette Peters) and the ghosts of the Weismann Theater

The core plot of Follies, as much as I’ve just described it, may seem muddled by the book, by James Goldman, which fleshes it out.  But taking a step back from what seems to be an increasingly disjointed musical, you can see that Follies is actually rather clever.  It uses two framing devices to tell the story of Sally and Phyllis and Buddy and Ben, both perfectly suited for the piece.  The rest of Weismann’s starlets may not seem as deeply characterized, and their songs may seem to come in from short left field; but when you consider them more as commentaries on the four principals than as narrative necessities, it brings even more shading to thoroughly textured characters.  And in Act II, when past regrets combine with present mistakes, we find ourselves in the imaginary Loveland of Weismann’s famous Follies; only now the older characters perform warped, bitter versions of the vaudeville routines that were the mainstays of their youth.  Follies, perhaps more than any other of Sondheim’s musicals, spends plenty of time getting into its characters’ brains, and subsequently into the audience’s.

Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) in Loveland

It is not, by any real appraisal, a happy story.  A particular directing decision on the part of production leader Eric Schaeffer had me convinced that when Sally sang the lovelorn ballad, “Losing My Mind”, she actually had.  Still, that isn’t to say that it isn’t a good story.  What Goldman’s book lacks in smooth transitions, it makes up for in efficiency and brevity.  It only takes six bitchy bon mots between surly Ben and vivacious Carlotta to convey decades of complicated history.  In fact, the show’s full of great zingers; but one-liners do not  a great script make.  Sondheim’s wonderful music buoys the book, and Schaeffer’s all-star cast brings both to vivid life.  Ron Raines cuts the perfect figure of the empty suit that is elder Ben, and his booming voice was a great surprise.  Jan Maxwell fully embodies Phyllis, the statuesque socialite who’s been slowly crumbling inside.  Danny Burstein shows he’s every bit as adept at drama as he is at comedy (I’m still not sure which is harder) as the broken-hearted Buddy.  And Bernadette Peters gives a tremendously interesting performance as Sally.  She may not look as faded as Sally as supposed to, but she still appears every bit as fragile.   Standing out among the large ensemble are Mary Beth Peil as Solange, Jayne Houdishell as Hattie, Terri White as Stella, and Elaine Paige as Carlotta.  Special mention should also go to the younger ensemble members who float spectrally across the catwalks, and to the positively luscious twenty-eight piece orchestra below the stage.

The women brought the house down with "Who's That Woman?"

There’s one last thing that I wanted to mention about this production of Follies, because it really caught my interest.  The score for Follies contains some of Sondheim’s more legendary songs, songs which have been performed since by any number of vocalists.  Two in particular, Phyllis’ furious “Could I Leave You” and Carlotta’s defiant “I’m Still Here”, are both musically and lyrically outstanding.  Yet it seems that Eric Schaeffer’s choice as director has been to put the onus on the latter over the former.  He has directed Jan Maxwell to treat “Could I Leave You” as simply a continuation of the no-holds-barred argument between Phyllis and Ben which precedes it, and has Elaine Paige nimbly tripping over the rhythms of “I’m Still Here” with a lounge-y, devil-may-care attitude.  As such, your first impression is that Maxwell appears to be racing through “Could I Leave You”, while Paige appears to have at times forgotten the next verse of “I’m Still Here”.  Schaeffer hasn’t directed them to perform these musical numbers so much as to inhabit them.  It’s a bold choice.  I’m still deciding whether or not it worked (especially when considering that both ladies, especially Elaine Paige, have solid voices that would be better showcased in a more straightforward approach), but it was interesting to see that the director made his choice and stuck with it.

For these geeky reasons and more, I recommend Follies to you, dear readers.  Get in while you can; it’s a limited engagement through early next year.

~ T

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