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