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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

April 25, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Follies’

The many fans of "Follies" had hoped that the

glorious Paper Mill Playhouse production, which opened there in 1998,

would move to Broadway. For various reasons — and despite its

excellence — it never made it to the Great White Way. Did that

depress those who couldn’t get a seat to the sold out show that many

consider the climactic point of the golden age of musicals? Well,

not for very long. Word had it that the Roundabout Theater Company

had already begun negotiations with the musical’s collaborators,

Stephen

Sondheim (composer and lyricist) and the estate of James Goldman

(author),

to reinterpret the 1971 musical that put the famous

turn-of-the-century

entertainment in a new light, even as it cast a grim shadow upon it.

Now the grim shadow can be discerned from the moment one enters the

Belasco Theater, built in 1970 and a legend in its own right. The

ghost of producer and director David Belasco, who died in 1931, is

said to haunt the theater to this day. The show’s set designer, Mark

Thompson, has attacked the interior walls of the grand old theater

to give it an age-mottled and decayed finish. This arrestingly grim

device serves to frame the show that some have called a genuine folly,

but others have called, not withstanding its sublimely bittersweet

and sour text, a masterpiece.

If "Follies" is unquestionably a stunningly aggrandizing

homage

to our own theatrical past, it is also a brilliantly focused look

into the punctured hearts of its four principal characters, two sadly

mismatched couples who are haunted by the past and by their own past

choices.

In reinterpreting "Follies," Matthew Warchus’ staging plays

down the musical and production demands and pumps up the dramatic

values. Unfortunately, and for all the emotional dynamics represented

onstage, there is a lack of balance between the intricately layered

views of both present and past, young and old, reality and fantasy.

For reasons both financial and aesthetic, fulfilling the fantasy of

what once was has been sacrificed for the reality of the now. More

surprising is that Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes are a disappointment

and do not appear to aspire to the needs of the past or the present.

Although budget-constrained, designer Thompson’s flair for pastiche

manages to work its magic.

The bane of "Follies" has always been the emotional drain

that comes with Goldman’s acrid and painfully honest text as well

as Sondheim’s dazzlingly poignant, yet tough-as-nails, lyrics that

demand close attention. Without taking anything away from Sondheim’s

haunting score, fans should be prepared for a show that assertively

deconstructs itself in order to find itself. Sometimes it works and

sometimes it doesn’t.

When it works, it is because the cast has taken the characters and

their dramatic situations to heart. It is only during the musical

numbers that the show staggers a little, each one begging for just

a little more poignancy, paranoia, and/or grandness than we are being

offered. As for the plot, which simply provides an excuse for

ex-Follies

stars to gather at a reunion at an old, soon-to-be-demolished theater,

it will always provide more heartbreak, more intense feelings, and

more unhappy characters than you are likely to find in a single

musical

in your lifetime.

Louis Zorich, who is most well known for his roles in

TV’s "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Mad About You," plays

Dimitri Weissman (think Florenz Ziegfeld). As the aging producer,

Zorich has a sly wink and a wry air as he welcomes back the

still-alive

and kicking performers of his former shows. Here they come, down the

now not-so-grand fire escape staircase, its metal rungs and the steep

decent representing a clear and present danger. This parade of once

and forever glamorous, still limelight-seeking former stars, as played

by Polly Bergen, Marge Champion, Betty Garrett, Joan Roberts, Jane

White, and Carol Woods. Within Thompson’s bleak setting, memories

are jogged; the ghosts of former Follies girls wander about, and those

present are suddenly charged by the glories of the past. The ensuing

songs and production numbers serve a dual purpose: to pay homage to

the past and provide a defining musical motif and context for many

of the characters.

Think of "Follies" as multiple vision theater. It can seem

like two or even three musicals rolled into one. This is the story

of an encounter, after 30 years, and what it means to four unhappily

married people. Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey play former showgirls

Phyllis and Sally, with Gregory Harrison and Treat Williams as Ben

and Buddy, their respective husbands and former stage door Johnnies.

Can the once perky but now peevish Sally (Ivey), justify her reckless

attempt to win back her former lover, Ben (Harrison), who ditched

her to marry the classier Phyllis (Danner)? And can any of us see

the folly of their ways through their satirized memories and the

reflected

action of their former selves? This, as their current and past lives

are mixed and mingled among the wandering ghosts of showgirls.

Director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Kathleen Marshall make

this interaction clear though not as thrillingly executed as in the

Paper Mill production. The intimate staging of this angst-driven

musical

is courageous, and works best in the principals’ bitchy and intimate

confrontations. In the second act it staggers during the not nearly

opulent enough pastiche production numbers. While the nostalgic

portions

of the show don’t quite reach the heights of their acerbic allusions,

we are impressed by the pure unadulterated dancing of Donald Saddler

(who appeared in the Paper Mill production) and Marge Champion, and

their buoyant youngster counterparts, Rod McCune and Carol Bentley.

Draped in the obligatory long feather boa, White brings insinuating

humor to the French valentine, "Ah Paree." I found Garrett’s

tender "Broadway Baby" a nice change from the more bombastic

approach taken by other Broadway babies. Seventy-year-old Polly Bergen

was expected to wow us — and does — with that irreverent ode

to survivors, "I’m Still Here."

More impressive as an actor than singer, Ivey, nevertheless, has the

toughest assignment of all, to make the hard-to-like Sally likeable.

She does, and still brings an expressive poignancy to her big songs,

"In Buddy’s Eyes" and "Losing My Mind." The stunning

Danner is riveting as the embittered Phyllis who lets out her

frustrations

in the wickedly clever song and dance, "The Story of Lucy and

Jessie."

An exuberant and full of sass Woods energizes the show early on

leading

"the ladies" in "Who’s That Woman?" Both Williams,

with "God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues" and Harrison, with

"Live, Laugh, Love," are memorable and convey the sadness

and melancholy that frames the show.

For the purest nostalgia, there is Roberts, who was the original

Laurie

in "Oklahoma," to sing (in duet with Brooke Sunny Moriber,

who plays Robert’s younger self) the lovely operetta-styled "One

More Kiss."

So is "Follies" ultimately depressing? Not to those who come

under its spell — and not as long memories such as these are fired

by one of Sondheim’s most amazing scores. Three stars: You won’t feel

cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Follies, Belasco Theater, 111 West 44 Street, New York,

cktk. $45 to $90.

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Ticket Numbers

Unless noted, all Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations can

be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Other outlets: Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; Ticketmaster,

800-755-4000

or 212-307-4100.


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