In the insular world of musical theater, "Follies" is the Holy Grail: Every production is a quest for the unattainable.
The show is tough because it operates on so many levels, some of which you can aim for consciously. Others require the operation of grace.
At its simplest, "Follies" is about a reunion of people who have not seen each other in 30 years, reawakening old loves and animosities, revisiting the hopes and illusions on which they based their lives.
We see four of them as they are now - with constant flashbacks as to how they were then.
What makes the reunion special is that it takes place in a theater about to be demolished.
In 1971, "Follies" was about show business modes that had already faced the wrecker's ball - vaudeville, torch songs, glamorous revues.
Today, the very mode in which "Follies" was written- the book musical - is virtually as extinct as all of the above.
On the one hand, it is an exercise in nostalgia - every major production includes performers who embody the glamour of yesteryear's showbiz.
On the other, "Follies" was a harbinger of things to come - Stephen Sondheim's incandescent score was both the culmination of the movement to integrate book and score and a foreshadowing of its disintegration. Its structure is inimitable, moving backward and forward, in and out of metaphor with almost reckless abandon.
The songs range from lighthearted sendups of old styles to the most heartrending ballads.
Is it any wonder that, despite the extraordinary riches of its score and its imagination, it seldom gets produced?
The current revival does best with an area that often suffers - telling the basic story of the two former chorus girls, Phyllis and Sally, and their then-beaus, now husbands Ben and Buddy.
By casting good actors in these roles, director Matthew Warchus has reinforced the spine of the show. They can make scenes convincing that often seem forced.
Their characterizations, however, are limited. As Sally, Judith Ivey is a mass of insecurities, a study in pure vulnerability. After a while, this begins to pall.
Similarly, Blythe Danner, who looks ravishingly beautiful, is icy throughout, never giving us a moment where we can find her sympathetic.
As their husbands, Gregory Harrison and Treat Williams are engaging, but little more.
There is, of course, a much bigger problem. None of the four is a really powerful singer, though Danner does well with the caustic "Could I Leave You?"
But what should be the emotional centerpiece of the evening, the harrowing "Losing My Mind," merely has you worrying whether Ivey will get the high notes.
As their youthful versions, Erin Dilly, Lauren Ward, Richard Roland and Joey Sorge all have bright-eyed energy.
The strongest moments come in individual numbers, especially Polly Bergen's "I'm Still Here." Bergen has the whisky voice and the chutzpah to do the great song justice.
Musically, the best moment is Carol Woods' joyful "Who's That Woman?" And there is a fragile elegance to the dancing of Donald Saddler and Marge Champion in "Rain on the Roof."
In the nostalgia category, Joan Roberts, star of the original "Oklahoma!" (ironically, the show that blazed the trail that "Follies" brought to an end), is endearing in "One More Kiss," as is Betty Garrett in "Broadway Baby."
Kathleen Marshall, who does such a great job with the Encore! choreography, not to mention "Kiss Me, Kate," seems at sea here. None of the dancing is very effective.
Mark Thompson's sets are strangely unevocative. Normally an empty stage - certainly one as full of ghosts as the Belasco's - gives me palpitations. Here, because the visuals are so lackluster, the mood induced is cheerlessness.
Only Theoni Aldredge's costumes have the right visual flair, particularly the stunning gown she has given Danner.
Jonathan Tunick has reduced the orchestrations to give both score and underscoring a warm, intimate quality, which conductor Eric Stern gets beautifully.
When a certain number of elements in "Follies" work, the show is bathed in iridescent magic. The current production never reaches that critical mass.
The dear old Belasco Theatre is adrift in a heady, heavy mist of good old-fashioned nostalgia - it seeps up from the floorboards, drips from the curtains, wafts down and fills the expectant auditorium. "Follies" is back in town!
Talk about nostalgia - this Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical, arriving last night, is full of it.
First, there is the original concept - a bittersweet elegy for, and passionate homage to, the long-lost Ziegfeld-style Broadway revues of times past, with their long-stemmed showgirls and short-fused comics, their great melodies and even greater staircases.
Then there's Goldman's sad and sudsy sob-sister tale of two now-middle-aged former showgirls and the two stage-door Johnnies they married - a story of roads not taken.
Adding to this is the swirl of showbiz nostalgia surrounding this new Roundabout Theater revival, and the ghosts it evokes and the comparisons it invites with all those previous versions of this show, the granddaddy of the cult musicals.
Remember, for Broadway buffs - the kind of cat for whom "Follies" is catnip - there was the first Michael Bennett/Harold Prince staging, in 1971; the all-star Carnegie TV-concert version, in 1985; Mike Ockrent's so-called "optimistic" London production, with music additions and book changes, in 1987; and, most recently, the splashy Paper Mill Playhouse production in 1998.
Well, straight off, this latest folly of a "Follies" ain't optimistic and it ain't splashy. At times, it's not only downright dowdy, but serious to the point of gloom.
Now don't get me wrong. Sondheim's music - it comes in two flavors, past and present - is still magnificent at best and pretty damn good at worst. And his lyrics, as usual, are simple bliss. This is a score, still with Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations, that has improved with keeping.
Unfortunately, the concept of this "concept" musical - a reunion party of performers from various editions of Weismann's (read Ziegfeld's) Follies on the occasion of the destruction of Weismann's old theater to make room for a parking lot - has never really worked, even in Ockrent's fascinating London recension.
Even so, it has never really not worked as lamentably as in this present drab and unimaginative staging by Matthew Warchus, which has little idea of the style needed. It is full of literal ghosts, but proves totally incapable of making any fusion between the actual party, the actual plot and the phantasmagoric finale.
In fairness, Warchus is hardly helped by the dreary settings of Mark Thompson, the dutiful but obvious lighting (look here, this is a ghost!) of Hugh Vanstone and the unexpectedly uncertain period costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge. Kathleen Marshall's choreography at least has the sense to be unobtrusive.
The four leading actors, Blythe Danner, Gregory Harrison, Judith Ivey and Treat Williams, are under a certain disadvantage because only one of them, Harrison, can really sing. And, in compensation, I suppose, he's the only one who comes off indifferently as an actor; Danner even holds a very elegant candle to the peerless original of Alexis Smith.
Of course, much of the joy of "Follies" rests in the cameo appearances of the old-timers, and these have been well-cast and emerge strong. The show-stopper , that survival anthem "I'm Still Here," is powerfully done by Polly Bergen, although she is no match for such predecessors as Elaine Stritch and Dolores Gray.
The rest of the senior contingent - Marge Champion, Betty ("Broadway Baby") Garrett, Joan Roberts (the original Laurey in "Oklahoma!"), Donald Saddler, Jane White, Carol Woods and Louis Zorich - is immaculate in demonstrating that while life may begin at 40, it can continue considerably further south.
The beauty we fell in love with 30 years ago isn't looking so good these days. I ran into her at the Belasco Theater the other night. She's turned all brittle and cynical, and she's thin to the point of emaciation. Worst of all, she seems to have lost any real sense of who she is. Sad, isn't it, what the years can do to a great musical?
The ardently anticipated revival of ''Follies,'' which opened last night in its first Broadway production since the original staging of 1971, certainly gets you to thinking about the souring effects of time and of roads not taken. ''Was it ever real?'' sings one of the endlessly rueful characters, of a long-ago love affair.
It's a question that fans of ''Follies,'' a rabidly passionate lot, may well ask themselves after seeing Matthew Warchus's pale and strangely tentative interpretation of this tale of former Ziegfeld-style performers gathered for a last reunion. What is widely remembered as a ravishing musical elegy for an era in American show business has resurfaced as a small, bleak and pedestrian tale of two unhappy marriages.
While its supporting cast includes fabled veterans whose very presence guarantees sentimental tears, the Roundabout Theater Company production of ''Follies'' has a bone-dry emotional center. And in the four principal roles, Blythe Danner, Gregory Harrison, Judith Ivey and Treat Williams come across as reluctant revelers on a scavenger hunt forced to look for the characters they have been asked to portray.
The magic of ''Follies'' was always in the music -- in Stephen Sondheim's brilliant re-inflecting of song styles of the past, with a score and lyrics that throbbed with ambivalence. The current incarnation shifts the emphasis to James Goldman's book, which is largely devoted to disenchanted husbands and wives sounding clever and bitter. This is not what is known as playing to one's strengths.
What made ''Follies'' seem revolutionary when it opened -- and was still apparent in an opulent production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., several years ago -- has all but disappeared. Set in a decaying theater that was once home to the glory days of the Weismann (read Ziegfeld) Follies, the show is indeed about the siren call of the past.
''Never look back,'' tenderly warbles an ancient soprano (Joan Roberts), recreating the operetta aria that was once her signature. The genius of ''Follies'' is its ability to capture the very act of memory and its distortions in music.
Mr. Sondheim's array of period songs are much more than sendup pastiches, evoking not just the flavor of another era but the way we recall it. You can still get the effect on the original cast album: the feeling of an idealizing orchestral lushness fragmenting into modern anxiety and discord. It is, to borrow a title from a recent play, the noise of time.
The 1971 production, overseen by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, visually matched the richness and surrealism of the music. With sets by Boris Aronson and costumes by Florence Klotz, it was a last-gasp Roman candle of a production, far too expensive to ever be realized today. Like the reunion portrayed onstage, it was a gorgeous blowout and a farewell.
Unlike the Paper Mill production of 1998, the Roundabout ''Follies'' doesn't attempt to reflect the original but instead reinvents the show in a minor, more naturalistic key. It puts the accent on the grit of the present rather than on the gold dust of the past.
This isn't a bad idea. But Mr. Warchus, the British director best known here for his smart, minimalist productions of ''Art'' and ''True West,'' seems to have little feel for ''Follies'' as fantasia, a lack that becomes achingly evident in the second act.
Whenever possible, he presents the show as your standard-issue organic musical, in which songs flow naturally out of the conversation instead of from the deeper recesses of the mind. He has, accordingly, cast actors instead of singers in the lead roles.
There were moments in the first act when I thought Mr. Warchus was going to pull off his brave conceptual approach. Certainly, the 94-year-old, elegantly weathered Belasco Theater offers a perfect environmental setting. As the actors mill through its aisles, on their way to and from the stage, we implicitly become their ghostly audience.
Mark Thompson's setting and Hugh Vanstone's lighting evoke a stark world denuded of any former glamour. The grand staircase on which the old Follies girls make their commemorative descent is now a rickety-looking fire escape. And lest we think that it was much more romantic in earlier times, the ghosts of chorines past who materialize, garlanded in wan spotlights, look more like floozies than goddesses.
The score itself, performed by an orchestra of 14 rather than the original 26 musicians, inevitably sounds wispier and less seductive. (Jonathan Tunick, the show's original orchestrator, makes the best of limited resources.) And Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes for the older women remind us of just how unflattering the styles of the 1970's were.
This context of greater realism does afford some genuinely touching moments, mostly in the frailty and gallantry of the older show-biz troupers. As a team reminiscent of Fred and Adele Astaire, Donald Saddler and Marge Champion do a lovely, gentle pas de deux. Betty Garrett (of the movie ''On the Town'') incorporates an affectingly shy shimmy into a softened version of the usually belted ''Broadway Baby.''
Just the fact of Joan Roberts, now a snowy-haired beauty with a cane, is enough to raise the pulse of any musical cultist. Ms. Roberts was the original Laurey in ''Oklahoma!'' And, why, there's Jane White, the evil queen from ''Once Upon a Mattress,'' providing a robust cartoon of a French chanteuse.
There is also, most impressively, the tough-skinned former movie star Polly Bergen as a tough-skinned former movie star who performs the show's best-known song, ''I'm Still Here.'' Ms. Bergen transforms the number from the usual defiant anthem into something darker, suggesting the toll exacted by survival.
What is largely missing, however, is an authentic sense of the show-biz fantasy machine that shaped these performers. ''Who's That Woman?,'' in which the Follies alumnae recreate a celebrated routine, is agreeable enough as led by Carol Woods.
Yet it has no taste of how it must have been sung or danced originally, and the ghostly tap dancers who emerge to represent the women's younger selves seem to have no relation to the older ones. The dancing throughout is bizarrely flavorless, showing none of the usual resourcefulness of its choreographer, Kathleen Marshall.
Song and dance are almost -- and I know this sounds crazy -- incidental in this ''Follies,'' which registers most pointedly as a study in marital conflict and midlife crises. This disharmony is embodied by the rich businessman-politician Benjamin Stone (Mr. Harrison) and his wry and frosty wife, Phyllis (Ms. Danner).
In the other corner is the overeager salesman Buddy Plummer (Mr. Williams), who married Phyllis's former roommate and fellow chorine, Sally (Ms. Ivey). They are shadowed, a bit too literal-mindedly in this production, by the ghosts of the hopeful kids they once were (played by Erin Dilly, Richard Roland, Joey Sorge and, most convincingly, Lauren Ward, as the young Sally).
It's not all hugs and happy reminiscence when these couples meet again. Regrets? They've had a few. Sally still loves Ben, with whom she had an affair; Buddy still loves Sally but has a younger mistress; and as for Phyllis and Ben . . . well, as Ms. Danner has to say to Mr. Harrison, in a voice wreathed in icicles: ''You haven't got a clue what love is. I should have left you years ago.''
That's the general tone of Mr. Goldman's book: ''Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?'' as it might have been rewritten for Joan Crawford at MGM. Ms. Danner delivers her acid zingers expertly, but she looks physically ill at ease throughout the evening in ways that have nothing to do with the pangs of lovelessness. None of these performers, in fact, seem at ease in the skins of their characters.
Mr. Harrison, in particular, doesn't begin to suggest the nervous tautness of a man about to snap, which Ben does in the second act. And Ms. Ivey seems less to inhabit the unsophisticated Sally than to patronize her. The performance is too shrill by half.
The fabled Loveland sequence, in which each member of this foursome does a solo Follies turn as a musical nervous breakdown, now seems sad for all the wrong reasons. It's not just the gimcrack look of the sets and costumes but the feeling that no one has bothered to direct the stars.
Each exudes the uncertainty of a performer still in the improvisational phase of shaping a character, trying on and discarding different poses, or of an understudy thrust into the spotlight. It is the opposite of selling a song, which may be Mr. Warchus's intention, but you just feel sorry for the singers (or nonsingers, as it happens), especially Ms. Ivey.
Perhaps this production has taken too much to heart the message of the show's haunted cornerstone song ''The Road You Didn't Take,'' about the consequences of choices in life. There's a feeling of paralysis throughout this ''Follies,'' a sense of artists at the crossroads still waiting to decide how they're going to conquer this grand and daunting show.
When Follies first arrived on Broadway in 1971, many perceived it as a morose break with tradition. Back then, Stephen Sondheim's sumptuous, sardonic study of two middle-aged couples facing seemingly irresolvable romantic and mortal dilemmas was an anomaly in a musical-theater mainstream dominated by young love and happy — or at least resolute — endings.
Three decades on, musical theater has taken an even darker turn — away from cohesive and compelling stories, melodies and lyrics, toward familiar, digestible motifs. In this light, the Roundabout Theatre Company's superb revival of (*** out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, seems both quaint and deliciously subversive.
Elements of this new production will seem familiar to most — especially the cast, a who's who of film and theater veterans. Blythe Danner stars as Phyllis Rogers Stone and Judith Ivey is Sally Durant Plummer, former showgirls and close friends who meet up at a 30-year reunion of their old dance troupe. Gregory Harrison and Treat Williams, respectively, play Phyllis' husband, Ben, a distinguished, superficially cavalier politico whom Sally has secretly loved for years, and Buddy, Sally's less successful, more emotionally astute spouse.
In the first act, these stars are at times upstaged by supporting players of even greater longevity. Polly Bergen, 70, is potently vampish as the aging sexpot Carlotta, queen of the showgirls. Such other seasoned performers as Betty Garrett, Joan Roberts, Marge Champion and Donald Saddler are trotted out to sing, dance and emote in numbers that can be reminiscent of those old yogurt commercials spotlighting frisky senior citizens.
But if these displays have the feel of calculated crowd-pleasers, they also hauntingly reflect one of Follies' central themes: our inability to relive the past or relax the pace at which time marches on. This is especially true of the many sequences that feature older characters, including the four leads, shadowed by their younger counterparts — a strategy enhanced by Kathleen Marshall's emotive choreography, Theoni V. Aldredge's glamorous period costumes and Hugh Vanstone's eerie lighting, which often depicts the youthful figures as ghostly presences.
Some of the sequences most likely to send shivers down your spine are big, splashy ensemble numbers — Beautiful Girls, which features a chorus line of aging ex-dancers who radiate youthful excitement, or Who's That Woman?, a zesty, poignant extravaganza in which these gals and their younger incarnations kick up their heels.
Other highlights showcase the individual gifts of both the performers and the composer/lyricist. Follies may not be Sondheim's most brilliant or consistent work, but it is a gem, and the cast does it full justice. Danner lends her usual mix of witty playfulness and effortless grace to Could I Leave You and The Story of Jessie and Lucy, while Harrison proves a forceful musical actor — with a rich, expressive singing voice — in The Road You Didn't Take and Too Many Mornings.
Two of Follies' most affecting songs, I'm Still Here and Losing My Mind, are given bravura readings, the former by the irrepressible Bergen and the latter by Ivey, whose delivery reduced me to tears.
But the most sobering moment in this Follies comes just after the curtain has fallen — when you realize that the most progressive, sophisticated and moving musical currently on Broadway was penned more than 30 years ago.
The famous ghosts of "Follies" have at last taken up residence again on Broadway, bringing a few new specters along. Thirty years after the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical opened at the Winter Garden, "Follies" is haunting the Belasco, uneasily wearing the diadem of legend that it has accrued in the three decades since it closed.
Crowns are not the most comfortable form of headgear, of course. In fact, the creators of the revival may find that the show's iconic status among theater lovers -- its score is perhaps the greatest from the last great composer for the American musical theater -- is a crown of thorns. There's an odd irony in this, of course: The musical suggests that nostalgia is a trap, and it has come to find itself a victim of it.
The Roundabout Theater Co.'s eagerly awaited new revival is not perfect; it has its glories and disappointments, good times and bum times. It is, in general, finely acted, directed with intelligence and craft, middlingly sung, minimally designed. Above all, and with or without flaws, "Follies" is welcome on Broadway, where its uncompromising air of regret is particularly bracing amid the juvenile cheer that marks most musicals these days.
A perfect "Follies" is, I suspect, an entirely imaginary conception. What strikes this first-timer to the show is its troubling -- and at the same time fascinating -- lack of cohesion, a quality commented upon by critics at its debut. "Follies" may be the most artful musical that somehow doesn't satisfy as a work of art, and maybe wasn't meant to.
Irresolution is stitched into its every seam. Is it a book musical or a revue? It's both. Does it condemn or celebrate the beautiful lies that Broadway once sold? it does both. Does it tell us that survival is everything, or that mere survival is spiritual death? Both. It throws a party to celebrate disappointment, and expects us to love its characters for their self-hate.
You try making all that work.
English director Matthew Warchus' previous New York productions were small scale, small cast and intricately nuanced: Yasmina Reza's "Art" and "The Unexpected Man," and the recent revival of "True West." He has said that his staging of "Follies" would take a "book-centered and actor-centered approach." Considering that Sondheim's score is the show's primary and most-beloved asset, with Michael Bennett and Harold Prince's staging of the original also reverently recalled, this is somewhat perverse, and the perversion sometimes shows.
Nevertheless it does bear dividends. Take, for example, "I'm Still Here," sung by the worldly wise Carlotta Campion, one of the ex-showgirls in attendance at a 1971 reunion on the stage of the Weissman Theater, soon to be a parking lot. As performed with indescribable artistry and vocal assurance by Polly Bergen, the song, once one among a series of solo divertissements performed revue-style, becomes a small, neatly defined drama within the larger frame of the show. Bergen begins by addressing her fellow performers, including them in Sondheim's tartly phrased paean to getting along, but as her intensity grows, the song turns inward, and by its fierce climax, Carlotta is alone onstage; the song has become an interior monologue, as much a fierce avowal of further endurance as a celebration of past survival. Not a mere show-stopper but a show in itself.
But it's in the casting of the musical's four central roles that Warchus' actor-centered approach is most clearly apparent, for good and ill. Neither Judith Ivey nor Blythe Danner, who play former follies girls and best friends who married the wrong men, have much experience in musicals. Ivey is sorely taxed by the range of some of her songs -- particularly "In Buddy's Eyes" -- while Danner's dancing in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" is mostly chorus boy-assisted posing -- and hardly persuasive at that. But these are actresses of the first rank, and they give touching and thoughtful performances.
As Sally Durant Plummer, who has always carried a torch for Ben Stone (Gregory Harrison), the man who tossed her aside to marry Danner's Phyllis, Ivey is poignant from start to finish. Her character's girlishness seems to have been uncannily preserved; with her eager, upturned face always boasting an ingratiating smile, she's visibly still the ingenue waiting for her dream date. The other characters are haunted by -- and in turn haunt -- the ghosts of their former selves, but Ivey's Sally also remains the ghost of her former self.
Phyllis is probably the best-written role of the four principals -- she's the only one who's both smart and sympathetic, and Danner nails both aspects of the character in a performance to relish. Her line readings are models of intelligent acting: Note how she slaps a layer of self-mockery on top of Goldman's occasional clunkers. She also clearly reveals the brittle but still hopeful heart beneath Phyllis' hard-edged exterior. Her performance of "Could I Leave You" is variously mordant, delicate and lacerating, as indeed is the performance as a whole.
Treat Williams, who plays Sally's salesman husband, Buddy, and Harrison as the successful but empty Ben Stone, are slightly less satisfactory. Williams is vocally overtaxed -- at times he even seems physically distressed -- by his challenging vaudeville number in the second act, although his acting is often affecting. Harrison is a stronger singer, but his performance is bland and too remote even for an emotionally withdrawn character; it doesn't help that Ben is prone to bald self-diagnoses on the order of, "It's my life and I've lived it wrong," and other somewhat glib paroxysms of self-contempt and need. Goldman's book is often amazingly theatrical, particularly in the intermingling of the ghosts from the past (fluently staged by Warchus), but it is also occasionally overexplicit and maddeningly underwritten.
Sondheim's score, of course, is a marvel. Thirty years on, the pastiche songs retain all their inherent musical charm and pizzazz, to say nothing of their verbal wit, and the book songs are exemplary examples of Sondheim's unparalleled knack for turning knotty pieces of introspection into musical and lyrical jewels.
Aside from Bergen's number, the most accomplished spots come from a stylish Jane White, her mouth wide enough to swallow the Eiffel Tower in "Ah, Paris!," and Carol Woods, who rocks the house with "Who's That Woman." Joan Roberts, the original Laurey in "Oklahoma!," is also sweetly enchanting while dueting with her younger self, Brooke Sunny Moriber, in the operetta number, and Betty Garrett rather endearingly undersells "Broadway Baby." Kathleen Marshall's choreography is appropriate but workmanlike and unmemorable.
If minimalism could be said to describe the vocal assets of the show, it also applies to the visual ones. Designer Mark Thompson has done a marvelous job of distressing the Belasco -- or merely exposing its age spots -- but more money seems to have been spent tearing the theater apart than constructing things to put onstage.
The "Loveland" sequence and the series of musical numbers that follow should transport us to a glamorous facsimile of the follies, but Thompson's sketchy vision -- when inspiration fails, think pink? -- doesn't take us very far. The financial constraints of today's Broadway are partly to blame here, but the fact remains that the production's pared-down visual aesthetics -- which extend to Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, handsome but mere ghosts of the Florence Klotz originals -- diminish its overall impact. (Hugh Vanstone's wondrous lighting is an exception, however; it artfully and intricately identifies the ghosts by bathing them in lavender moonlight.) Without an idea of the magic that was lost, how can we feel the ache at the heart of the show, which is as much an elegy for an art form as it is for the dream of a happy marriage?
Even diminished, "Follies" is hypnotic and deeply affecting to anyone old enough to ponder roads not taken and the follies of youth. Its splintered, unresolved quality -- it doesn't so much end as stop -- may have a lot to do with the overwhelming affection it inspires in its fans. The show leaves the audience hanging along with its characters, who seem to have no future whatsoever when the curtain comes down. As soon as it's over you want to start watching it again, hoping for a miracle: that elusive happy ending that life -- and Broadway shows -- once seemed to promise.