After years of listening to the extraordinary score of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” on various albums and PBS programs, I have finally seen a full production. This production of “Follies” directed by Eric Schaeffer was presented earlier this year at Kennedy Center and is now running at the Marriott Marquis on Broadway.
All that listening, and certain songs never seemed to fit. Now at last I’ve seen the flow of the story, in the present, in the past, and in the actual “Follies” sections of the second act, and I get it.
Mind you, that second act was theoretical the night I saw it. On entering the theatre we were told that, despite the printed program proclaiming one fifteen-minute intermission, the play would run two hours and twenty minutes with no intermission. Artistically this is a valid choice. However, it does make concentration on the second half of the show more difficult for many people in the audience. Producers will have to weigh their choices — if they continue the run without intermission, send a forewarning: "At your pre-theatre dinner, eat light, drink less!"
The story — this old theatre, the Weismann, is being torn down to make way for a parking lot, its former showgirl stars are coming together for a reunion, and among them are Sally and Phyllis, who were wooed, bedded, and wedded, in various orders, by Buddy and Ben. In the intervening thirty years, these couples, like the other former “Weismann Girls,” have had full lives, but reunions have been known to shatter the status quo. What memories are accurate, which romanticized, who were they then, who are they now? One might expect a different story from book writer James Goldman and Sondheim, and yet…. many a simple, if tangled, storyline of primary romance, secondary romance, and comedic romance have occasioned some great, great show tunes in the past. The “Follies” score does not disappoint.
The show is a bit too long, but most of the performances are top notch. The house is hung in a funereal manner and blends into the stage set by Derek McLane. “Follies girls” from 30, 40, and 50 years before return in 1971, dressed to the nines (mostly) with their spouses (mostly). The women, ranging in age from 49 to 79, make their entrances down a staircase wearing beauty pageant banners proclaiming the year of their reign: 1919, 1926, 1931, all the way into the early 1940s. They are shadowed by their ghosts…. beautiful young women dressed as “Ziegfeld girls” (or in this case, “Weismann”) moving as they did in the past, accompanying the women’s entrances, songs, dances….The present day women are aging, but clearly some still dance, as evidenced in my favorite song-and-dance number, “Who’s That Woman” (which I think of as “Mirror, Mirror”) led by a joyously boisterous Terri White as Stella.
A stunning use of the ghost girls was “One More Kiss,” a very old-fashioned operetta number sung by Heidi (opera singer Rosalind Elias) and the ghost of the girl she was (Leah Horowitz) in an absolutely fabulous dress (one of many perfect outfits by costume designer Gregg Barnes). It was a beautiful duet from another time, or two.
One of the most famous songs from the show, “Broadway Baby,” sung elsewhere by everyone from Betty Garrett to Elaine Stritch, is here sung by Jayne Houdyshell. Ms. Houdyshell doesn’t quite have the pipes for it, but she’s got the acting chops, so it works.
“Could I Leave You” is a show stopper in this show full of numbers that can bring down any house. I’ve heard it sung by men and by women, and Jan Maxwell wins.
Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone owns this show. It’s not just that she’s tall and sleek and has a fabulous dress. She is a goddess, she sings, she dances, and her acting notes are perfection. She has emotional responses to people, she’s relating to them while she’s singing and dancing. And she’s having a helluva good time.
Elaine Paige is just fabulous as Carlotta — having listened to her for years, I’m happy to finally see her in action. She most certainly is “still here,” as she sells “I’m Still Here” with emotion, cynicism, and a still solid voice breaking through any limitations of time and space.
Alas, Bernadette Peters is not at the top of her game as Sally. She’s overacting here and there, and her upper register was not serving her in the performance I saw. Bernadette was too turned into herself, her Sally. She telegraphed her frantic emotions from the moment Sally entered. I was in the back of the house, how false must that have appeared to those in the front? Then in her most important song, “Losing My Mind” in Sally’s Folly, she internalized too much. She not only didn’t move left or right, she didn’t move us, either.
I’ve barely mentioned the men. Well, while the women performed functions of plot, they were also fully fleshed out. This is not just the actors, this is Sondheim and Goldman. The men, on the other hand, could be traded in for other men in similar stories — the sincere second choice guy, the one you rely upon but don’t love; the ambitious insincere guy that women fall for blindly or with clear vision. While Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer (the sincere guy, Sally’s husband) and Ron Raines (the insincere guy, Phyllis’s husband Benjamin Stone) did their jobs more than adequately, still those guys are not memorable or distinct from characters in countless black-and-white movies seen in my (and probably Sondheim’s and Goldman’s!) youth.
The section of the show I least understood aurally was delightful onstage, the outlandish Follies. Throughout the play, the younger versions of Ben (Nick Verina), Sally (Lora Lee Gayer), Phyllis (Kirsten Scott), and Buddy (Christian Delcroix) had shown us what really happened in the past. Finally they have their own folly, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.” As the “Folly of Youth,” it’s sweet and hopeful, leading in to the Follies of the same people thirty years later, which are neither.
I particularly enjoyed Buddy’s Folly (“The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”), which was much better than his earlier number (“The Right Girl,” which was one long note no matter how athletic the choreography), and Phyllis’ Folly, the quirky “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” These numbers were significant to the characters’ problems, but neither self-indulgent nor maudlin. On the other hand, Sally’s number was dull and Ben’s went on much too long.
James Moore’s musical direction of the show is just marvelous, the music gorgeously grand and lush with a full orchestra in the pit. It’s one of the traditions of Broadway musicals that should be revived more often. Visually the show gave us the remains of old show business, including those gorgeous ghosts …. showgirls dressed in impossibly high headdresses, high heels and scanties, moved slowly along the catwalks, steep staircases, sometimes in tandem with the modern women, sometimes drawing attention from the center stage action. This production is very well done, just not perfect. But what is? The play’s last moments were lovely — a lone “ghost” reaches toward the last living beings to leave the theatre, leaving us to wonder what happens to all those graceful ghosts when the parking lot paves over the theatre.
And then I start thinking of Joni Mitchell…..
~ Molly Matera, signing off to sing and dance to an old recording…..