Corrections or additions?
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,
Sondheim (composer and lyricist) and the estate of James Goldman
to reinterpret the 1971 musical that put the famous
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
in the wickedly clever song and dance, "The Story of Lucy and
An exuberant and full of sass Woods energizes the show early on
"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
in "Oklahoma," to sing (in duet with Brooke Sunny Moriber,
who plays Robert’s younger self) the lovely operetta-styled "One
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
— Simon Saltzman
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