Let’s resign ourselves to the fact that the current revival of the legendary musical “Follies” may be just about as good as it is ever going to get. Nit-picking by those who have since placed a halo on top of the cracked image of the Follies girl in the famous poster (I sentimentally include myself) places a hardship on this production and also on the legacy established by the original production exactly 40 years ago.
Back in the spring of 1971, and despite a very vocal and sizable band of idolizers, the Broadway critics were divided on the show’s merits. The collaboration between the progressive composer Stephen Sondheim and a highbrow book-writer James Goldman was conceived to cast a grim shadow and be seen as a semi-sour homage to the Ziegfeldian era. For many like me, it is a brilliantly focused fictional fable. At its best, which is often enough, it looks deeply 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 that its musical and dramatic structure 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, perilously splintered text. The brilliance of the musical remains Sondheim’s score: the haunting melodies that capture the flavor of a bygone era and those with a brittle contemporary resonance. While Goldman’s book serves the plot and drives the fractured narrative, it is Sondheim’s lyrics that demand close attention and remain the undeniable power behind the show. The sound of the 28-piece orchestra, under the splendid direction of James Moore, is, as it should be, thrilling as it reminds us what a full complement of musicians in the pit can mean to a big musical.
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 biggest misstep since the original production was the disappointing and misguided revival produced by the Roundabout in 2001. Previously a lavish and dramatically cohesive all-star production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 1998 was the one that should have transferred to Broadway were it not for the Goldman estate, which gave the rights for a Broadway production to the Roundabout.
This current revival on Broadway is the recent and well-received Kennedy Center production with a cast that comes pretty darned close to measuring up to the show’s full potential. It’s not as great as it should or could be, but I’m grateful that this musical is getting another chance to announce, as the character Carlotta also sings about herself within the show, “I’m Still Here.”
The opening scene can’t fail to send waves of expectancy up and down your spine as aging producer (think Florenz Ziegfeld) Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin) welcomes back some of the still alive and kicking performers of his former shows. Within the darkened, decaying grandeur of Derek McLane’s set, memories are jogged, and present presentiments are suddenly charged by the glories of the past, as introduced by the vibrant tenor voice of Michael Hayes as the aging Follies tenor singing “Beautiful Girls.”
There are the glamorous, applause-getting entrances of former headliners and showgirls played by Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Elaine Paige, Rosalind Elias, Jayne Houdyshell, Florence Lacey, Mary Beth Piel, Susan Watson, and Terri White 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 Peters and Maxwell, as the former showgirls, and Danny Burstein and Ron Raines as their respective husbands, former Stage Door Johnnies.
This musical may seem like two or even three musicals rolled into one. Consider “Follies” as a 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 (Peters), married to the despondent and unfaithful Buddy (Burstein), justify her reckless attempt to win back her former lover, Ben (Raines), who ditched her to marry the classier Phyllis (Maxwell)? 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 Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Warren Carlyle make this interaction, which can easily get muddled, eminently clear. Their staging of this angst-driven musical begins somewhat fitfully but gains momentum as the characters move from their sometimes bitchy but also intimate confrontations to the colorfully fantasized pastiche production numbers, opulently costumed by Gregg Barnes, who (not incidentally) also designed the costumes for the Paper Mill production.
After a tentative start, Peters eventually takes possession of the hard-to-like and hard-to-take Sally, and brings, as we have come to expect from her, an expressive poignancy to Sally’s big songs, “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind.” Maxwell, who, as the ascorbic and embittered Phyllis, takes charge of the show from her entrance and scores a homerun singing and dancing “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” with the gentlemen of the ensemble.
The leading gentlemen, notably Raines as Phyllis’ by-work-obsessed and full of regrets (“The Road You Didn’t Take”) husband, Ben, and Burstein, as Sally’s philandering and full-of-remorse (“The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”) husband, Buddy, are terrific and will likely be strong contenders for awards this spring.
While the nostalgic portions of the show are noted for their sentimentalized illusions, we also revel in the grace of dancing oldsters played by Don Correia and Susan Watson as well as in the charming portraits created by Lora Lee Gayer as the younger Sally and Kirsten Scott as the younger Phyllis. I have some misgivings about the way Mary Beth Peil (whom we all, however, love as the interfering mother-in-law in TV’s “The Good Wife”) personifies a French chanteuse with “Ah Paree.”
But you are in for a real and unexpected treat when Houdyshell grabs the spotlight and literally energizes Act I with the show-stopper “Broadway Baby.” In her own inimitable and robust style, British stage star Elaine Paige belts out that irreverent ode to survivors, “I’m Still Here.” A highlight of “Follies” has always been “Who’s That Woman,” a clever bit of trickery in which the older ladies still dancing up a storm and led by Terri White in full throttle, are suddenly replaced by their younger selves. Don’t let a tear get in your way as opera legend Rosalind Elias sings the glorious ode to operetta “One Last Kiss” and in duet with her younger self sung by Leah Horowitz.
Director Schaeffer has probably given us as close to a fully realized vision as we could expect. Finding a balance between the glitz and the gauze and the grim and melancholy aspects of “Follies” is not and will never be an easy task.
The costly show, which ran for over a year on Broadway, generated a loyal following but never showed a profit. And the much anticipated and rewritten London production more than a decade later tried hard, but it missed the magic by a mile. An “Encores” at City Center concert version in 2007 figured out how to play up the musical’s strengths. No version, however, has come close to the unforgettable New York Philharmonic concert version in 1985 with Barbara Cook as Sally. There I go dreaming again. ***
“Follies,” Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway. $45 to $135. 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com