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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 13, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Follies’ at Paper Mill

The legendary musical "Follies," has found

the perfect home at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Back in the spring of

1971, the Broadway critics were divided on the show’s merits. The

collaboration between the progressive Stephen Sondheim and a highbrow

James Goldman put that famous turn-of-the-century entertainment in

a new light, even as it cast a grim shadow upon it. "Follies"

was and still is perceived by some as a genuine folly — a sour,

if also stunningly aggrandizing, extravaganza. To others, like myself,

it is a brilliantly focused look into the punctured hearts of its

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

own past choices.

The brilliance of "Follies" is its musical and dramatic structure

that gives us layered views of both present and past, reality and

fantasy. The bane of "Follies" is the emotional drain that

comes with Goldman’s bitter text and Sondheim’s dazzling yet testy

lyrics that demand close attention. Yet it is Sondheim’s downright

haunting score that is the undeniable power behind the show.

As for the plot device that simply provides the characters with an

excuse to gather at a reunion at an old crumbling theater, it still

beats "Oklahoma." The inimitable Eddie Bracken plays Dimitri

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

is a commanding host, with the tonal resonance of one who would like

to play King Lear, who welcomes back the still alive and kicking performers

of his former shows.

Within the decaying grandeur of Michael Anania’s set, memories are

jogged, and present presentiments are suddenly charged by the glories

of the past. There are the glamorous, applause-getting entrances of

former headliners played by Ann Miller, Kaye Ballard, Phyllis Newman,

Liliane Montevecchi, among others, who make the long precarious descent

down the grand marbled staircase. Our attention turns quickly to the

more pertinent and troubled presence of Donna McKechnie and Dee Hoty,

as the former showgirls, and Tony Roberts and Laurence Guittard, as

their respective husbands and former Stage Door Johnnies.

This musical may seem like two or even three musicals rolled into

one. Consider "Follies" as multiple vision theater. This is

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

unhappily married people. Can the once perky but now peevish Sally

(McKechnie), married to the despondent and unfaithful Buddy (Roberts),

justify her reckless attempt to win back her former lover Ben (Guittard)

who ditched her to marry the classier Phyllis (Hoty)? And can any

of us see the follies of their ways through their satirized memories

and the reflected actions of their former selves? This, as their current

and past lives are mixed and mingled among the wandering ghosts of

showgirls.

Director Robert Johanson and choreographer Jerry Mitchell make this

interaction clear. Their staging of this angst-driven musical is without

fault, from the characters’ bitchy but intimate confrontations to

the budget-be-damned pastiche production numbers, opulently costumed

by Gregg Barnes.

While the nostalgic portions of the show are noted for their acerbic

allusions, we also revel in the pure unadulterated grace of dancing

oldsters played by Donald Sadler and Natalie Mosco, and their buoyant

youngster counterparts, Arte Phillips and Pascale Faye. There is great

fun trying to catch the words that the slinky Montevecchi, draped

in red feathers, gargles through "Ah, Paree." And you might

want to fasten your seat belt as Kay Ballard breaks through the sound

barrier with "Broadway Baby." Catch a fleeting peek at 75-year-old

Ann Miller’s still gorgeous gams through the slit in her shimmering

silver and blue gown as she wows us with that irreverent ode to survivors,

"I’m Still Here."

McKechnie is splendid as the hard-to-like Sally, and brings an expressive

poignancy to her big songs, "In Buddy’s Eyes" and "Losing

My Mind." Perhaps a bit young for the role, Hoty is, nevertheless,

riveting as the embittered Phyllis who ends up unexpectedly a winner

with the wickedly clever strip, "Ah, But Underneath." To call

this company an illustrious ensemble is not giving it enough credit.

They are each and all simply terrific.

There is a growing legion of fans who see behind and beyond the glitz

and the gauze that purposefully shrouds "Follies’" grim and

melancholy musical narrative. The costly show, which ran for over

a year on Broadway, generated a loyal following but never showed a

profit. That Broadway production glittered with such formidable has-beens

as Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Yvonne DeCarlo, Ethel Shutta, Gene

Nelson, Fifi D’Orsay, and Justine Johnson. And the much anticipated

and rewritten London production more than a decade later tried hard,

but it missed the magic by a mile.

Yet "Follies" continues to haunt those in its spell, as much

as it challenges those who try to stage it. Paper Mill and Johanson

have probably given us the best and most fully-realized vision yet

of Sondheim’s magnificent "Follies."

— Simon Saltzman

Follies, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn,

973-376-4343. $32 to $55. To May 31.


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