This is the best-acted, best-sung production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies I've seen and yet it's still not the Follies of my dreams. It's an elaborate, wildly expensive show to mount when you follow the vision of that fabled 1971 edition that was housed in the Winter Garden where Mamma Mia! now holds court. Follies is so daunting in its size that the show is much more popular as a staple of all-star concerts. And no wonder -- the score is filled with one terrific Sondheim number after another. That's not the only reason Follies works so well in that context. At heart, it's a very quiet, intimate, heartbreaker of a show and it should be seen in close-up both psychologically and literally. But all those showgirls and feathers and costumes cost a lot of money, so here is Follies in a space perfect for a spectacle like Showboat.
I can't stop imagining this cast in a stripped down production where you don't have a three-tiered massive set, where you don't have ghosts wandering around all over the place but (mostly) imagine them and where we can savor the pros in an atmosphere like the casual reunion we're supposed to witness. Instead the show's atmosphere is rather formal and grand, in the style of the follies of old. Those follies went out of style because they lacked any emotional oomph; some day Follies will learn the same lesson. (I bet the Chocolate Factory in London does it right some day.)
This show is all about shattered dreams so I suppose it's appropriate for me to cling onto the fantasy of a small, stripped-down Follies, just like one-time showgirl Sally (Bernadette Peters) holds onto the dream of running off with the handsome and successful Ben when Ben isn't remotely interested in anything more than a quickie.
Sally's illusions will be shattered at a 1971 reunion party of the Wiseman troupe, the performers who starred in a Ziegfeld Follies-style annual spectacle between the wars. Act One is truly astonishing as the troupers gather around and inevitably break out some of their classic routines. What a challenge for Sondheim. Not only does he have to write songs in a bygone style, he needs to make us to believe these are classics and yet have them familiar enough to let us buy these performances are old friends in a way for everyone involved. Needless to say, he succeeds.
The nostalgia piles on in fascinating ways: we get the artificial nostalgia of hearing brand-new songs presented as oldies but goodies and we get the genuine nostalgia of seeing veterans of a certain age enjoy yet another (and perhaps one last) chance to strut their stuff on stage, bringing with them all the history of their long love affair with the biz. That's achieved effortlessly with a trio of tunes. Susan Watson and Don Correia have great fun with the novelty number "Rain On The Roof." Mary Beth Piele lands "Ah, Paris!" And then Jane Houdyshell (who wins over the crowd every moment she's on the stage with practiced ease) knocks it out of the park with "Broadway Baby."
In between those "performances" of old we learn of the tangled relationship between Sally and Ben (a very good Ron Raines) and the miserable unhappiness of their respective spouses Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Phyllis (an excellent Jan Maxwell). Then it's topped by an even better show-stopper when Terri White leads the whole gang in the sensational "Who's That Woman." It's so marvelous a scattered number of people in the audience bolted for the exits, assuming they'd just seen the act one finale. Nope, that song is followed by Elaine Paige embodying "I'm Still Here" (she triumphs by letting that song sell itself). Even that's not the end of the act, since as I said Follies truly yearns to be a gentle show. So after those two crowd-pleasers, it comes to a poignant end with the duet "Too Many Mornings" and Buddy looking on from the wings as his wife Sally and Ben indulge in a kiss.
What a first act, filled with so many performers you want to see each and every one of these actors in their own show, soon. You could go home happy. (Indeed, I think one of the greatest nights of theater imaginable would be seeing the first act of Follies, followed by the first act of Into The Woods and then the first act ofSunday In The Park With George . Hey, a fella can dream, can't he?)
Act Two explodes all the fantasies indulged in by those antiquated musical revues. Instead of old vaudeville numbers, we get new vaudeville numbers that use the old forms to tell complex, wrenching tales of broken hearts. Intellectually, I understand it. But it's rather static in a way because most of the songs tell us what we already learned in Act One, albeit with a little more self-awareness. But what songs! "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow," "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues," "The Story Of Lucy and Jessie," "Live, Laugh, Love" and of course "Losing My Mind" are razzle-dazzlers, even if emotionally we're mostly spinning our wheels until Ben finally admits he's desperately unhappy at the finale and reaches out for Phyllis one more time.
So yes the production may be so top-heavy (as Sondheim demands) and so grand in the follies style that it's always fighting an uphill battle for the intimacy the story demands. The design is exactly what Sondheim describes but it did feel like a redux of the Roundabout revival a decade ago. The draping of grey curtains was probably the only way to make the modern Marquis feel decrepit, but the general feel was more haunted house (in a hokey way) than faded glory.
But when a musical has this many great songs and this many great performers, it's hard to go wrong. Did I mention much of the cast is mirrored by actors playing their younger selves? This works most beautifully when Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz perform the light operetta sort of tune "One More Kiss." The elderly Heidi sings gloriously until the young Heidi appears behind her to belt it out even more beautifully. Soon their voices are intertwined and competing and surging together as the memory of how she could sing in her younger days spurs Heidi on to one last marvelous note. It's truly touching on so many levels.
Jan Maxwell scores brilliantly as Phyllis, nobody's fool even though she's playing the fool for her successful husband. She's more sympathetic than the self-deluded Sally and also has the best lines; Maxwell makes the most of them. She's matched nicely by Raines every step of the way. Burstein is good as Buddy, though not in his big solo number that opens the second act, "The Right Girl." He's very good in the dramatic scenes and the other numbers, but here he just didn't quite hold the stage. (I cruelly kept wondering if Norbert Leo Butz might step in when Burstein moves on.) Bernadette Peters is a pro, of course, but her voice sounded a bit exhausted now that it was a few nights after the exhausting press previews. But no one could fault her skills as an actor. At the end, this bravely low-key show has a stunner of a scene where Peters and Burstein are just onstage alone, saying nothing as she sees her last dream fade away. No dialogue, no song and yet the audience was gripped. So in short a three star performance this night of a four star musical -- divide the difference and let's call it a 3 1/2 star night. But someday....
The Theater Season 2011-2012 (on a four star scale)
All's Well That Ends Well/Shakespeare in the Park **
Broadway By The Year: 1997 ** 1/2
Cymbeline at Barrow Street Theatre ***
Follies *** 1/2
Hero: The Musical * 1/2
Master Class w Tyne Daly ** 1/2
Measure For Measure/Shakespeare in the Park ***
Olive and The Bitter Herbs ** 1/2
One Arm ***
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) ** 1/2
Silence! The Musical * 1/2
Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark * 1/2
Sweet and Sad **
Unnatural Acts ***
FRINGEFEST NYC 2011
The Bardy Bunch **
Books On Tape ** 1/2
Hard Travelin' With Woody ***
Leonard Cohen Koans *** 1/2
Paper Cuts ***
Parker & Dizzy's Fabulous Journey To The End Of The Rainbow ** 1/2
Rachel Calof ** 1/2
Romeo & Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending **
2 Burn * 1/2
Walls and Bridges **
What The Sparrow Said ** 1/2
Yeast Nation ***
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
Note: Michael Giltz was provided with free tickets to these show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.