Return to Production

Follies (09/12/2011 - 01/22/2012)


AP: "Follies"

A revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" has arrived on Broadway just in time for Halloween. It's perfect for the season — it's got ghosts, skeletons bursting out of closets and a haunted house. It's also a treat.

A veteran cast that includes Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell backed by a 28-piece orchestra lends this masterpiece about middle-aged angst a lusciousness.

One after the other, performers step up to produce thrilling versions of song including "Broadway Baby" (Jayne Houdyshell), "I'm Still Here" (Elaine Paige), "Could I Leave You?" (Maxwell) and "Losing My Mind" (Peters). It's head-spinning stuff, one delicious bite of candy followed by another at the Marquis Theatre, where the show opened Monday night.

James Goldman's story focuses on a reunion of former showgirls, performers who were featured in various editions of a musical revue not unlike the Ziegfeld Follies, which flourished on Broadway between the two world wars.

The party takes place in a dilapidated theater awaiting the wrecking ball and set designer Derek McLane has chosen to spread out his vision to the audience — the balconies and walls of the Marquis are draped in huge molding cloth and piles of dusty ropes. Columns are crumbling, paint is peeling and there's even the sound of dripping.

Add to this the real stench of regret. The musical uses the stories of two unhappily married couples — the upper-crust Phyllis (Maxwell) and Ben (Ron Raines); the middle-class Sally (Peters) and Buddy (Danny Burstein) — as they return to the theater where their unhappy romances began.

Each married the wrong person, or think they did. What's worse, all four have never gotten over their youthful dreams, particularly when it comes to love and romance. The title's double meaning soon becomes clear.

"Ben and I don't do things anymore — we say things," Phyllis complains at one point. "When we're young, there is no limit to the roles we hope to play. Star, mother, hostess. I wanted to do it all but I learned to choose. And suddenly our selections are chiseled in marble."

Also present are each reunion member's younger selves, ghosts from another era when everything seemed possible. The show depicts past and present colliding, hopes and dreams confronting realities. It is not a good advertisement for aging gracefully.

Director Eric Schaeffer, who began this production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but has had to introduce a few new actors when earlier ones dropped out on the way to Broadway, smartly uses all the stage, keeping both ghosts and humans in a sort of graceful dance. To make it even more complex, the ghosts sometimes jump into the dialogue, but this cast doesn't seem rattled.

Schaeffer has enriched the visual appeal by adding leggy Follies girls silently gliding in the background and on two platforms, sort of the ghosts of show-biz past. One odd note is struck when these Vegas-looking creatures with huge headdresses sometimes stop, stand and face the back wall, as if they were mimicking those little robot vacuums that get confused and bury themselves in an alcove for hours.

The gloom is lifted every so often by a faded former actress stepping forward with a song and dance. Mary Beth Peil belts out an ooh-la-la "Ah, Paris!" while Paige's "I'm Still Here" is a sassy cabaret triumph. All the ladies combine with their younger selves for a lovely "Who's That Woman?" — a celebration of female survival. Choreographer Warren Carlyle has even added a few missteps and jokes in his dances as the women try to remember their steps.

Sondheim has written a two-tiered score that contrasts the disillusionment of the lead roles with traditional musical comedy numbers that recall famous theater composers of the past — from Rudolf Friml to George Gershwin to Cole Porter to Harold Arlen.

The darkness of the set and the sadness of the themes suddenly explode during the "Loveland" sequence, in which the main characters' neuroses and disillusionments are performed vaudeville-style under garish lights and fluffy roses. It's a dreamlike burst of color and yet remains vaguely sinister.

Peters, who knows her way around a Sondheim score, is wonderful as the pining, overweight housewife Sally — she manages to hide her knock-out figure in Act I — and delivers a crushingly pretty "Losing My Mind." But Maxwell in a slinky gown by costume designer Gregg Barnes is marvelous, alternating from feigned disinterest to passive aggressive to ferocious in her great numbers "Could I Leave You?" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."

The guys are great, too. Burstein seems at first a guiless puppy as Buddy, but his internal frustrations emerge in his physical take on "The Right Girl." Raines as Ben is all world-weary grace and elegance, until he collapses at the end to reveal the weak man beneath.

The younger versions of the four main characters — Christian Delcroix, Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott and Nick Verina — are none too shabby themselves, especially in the Loveland sequence where they overlap melodies, fight with their older selves and dance up a storm.

"Come on, let's go home," Phyllis says at the end of the show to Ben. But it's been such a good and tuneful production that you may hope no one listens to her and the ghosts stick around just a little longer.


New York Daily News: "Follies"

Revisiting the past can be eye-opening and heart-breaking, as two unhappy couples discover in "Follies," a much-loved musical about pretty showgirls and ugly truths.

Since 1971, the show by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Goldman (book) has achieved legendary status, buoyed by a gem-packed score - one of the finest in the last 40 years.

There's a lot to savor in the season-opening new Broadway revival from the Kennedy Center in Washington, where it ran in the spring:

Joyous performances by a 40-member cast led by Bernadette Peters, a luscious 28-piece orchestra and a soundscape that lets you relish every note and lyric.

There are also letdowns.

No one could expect director Eric Schaeffer, a veteran of several Sondheim shows, to fix inherent issues - a momentumless narrative and soapy dialogue. But more originality in his approach, conceptually and design-wise (black drapes - really?), could have helped make a standard-issue show a truly distinctive one.

The plot follows Weissman Follies girls gathered at their former show palace before it's razed. Among the guests being watched by ever-lithe ghosts of girls haunting the derelict theater are four friends with tricky pasts.

Sweetly fragile Sally (Peters) is long married to happy-go-lucky Buddy (Danny Burstein), but pines for confident Ben (a sturdy Ron Raines), now rich and wed to elegant Phyllis (Jan Maxell), Sally's former roommate.

While they confront coulda, woulda, shoulda's, other follies girls toast their glory days with a signature solo.

Sondheim's marvelous music here crosses eras and styles - softshoe, operetta, torch and more - and is at his most lyrically insightful, nimble and playful.

Jayne Houdyshell makes "Broadway Baby" a deadpan delight, while Terri White leads "Who's That Woman?" a number in which older Weissman girls dance with their younger selves. Choreographer Warren Carlyle supplies the toe-tappy steps.

British star Elaine Paige stops things cold 75 minutes in with a punchy and perfectly calibrated "I'm Still Here," a wry ode to unsinkability.

After drifting through Act I, the show leaps to life in the vaudeville-style Loveland sequence. Flanked by kicky chorus girls, Burstein lets loose his inner clown on a terrific "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues."

Maxwell, known for dramatic roles, shows off a dexterous set of pipes - ice cold on the angry "Could I Leave You?" and red-hot and bluesy in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."

That Peters, well-seasoned in Sondheim, struggles a bit vocally early on isn't altogether out of character in her shattered take on Sally. When it matters most she summons all her mighty powers for "Losing My Mind."

Obeying Sondheim's lyrics or the director or both, she plants herself center stage, "not going left, not going right." Stock still, Peters delivers the show's most moving moment.

New York Daily News

New York Times: "Follies"

Somewhere along the road from Washington to Broadway, the Kennedy Center production of “Follies” picked up a pulse. A vigorous heart now beats at the center of this revitalized revival of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical, which opened on Monday night at the Marquis Theater. And though the subject is the ghosts of show business past, don’t expect gentle nostalgia. This “Follies” looks back as much in anger as in fondness. That’s what makes it so vibrant.

Set in a decaying theater that once housed the Ziegfeld-style Weismann musical revues, “Follies” asks us to measure the warping weight of three decades upon the onetime Weismann performers who reunite “for a final chance to glamorize the old days,” as one character says. But there’s another, happier computation to consider. That’s the changes wrought not by 30 years but by three or four months.

As directed by Eric Schaeffer, “Follies” seemed sleepy and slow when I caught it in Washington in May. Though it perked up in its second act, much of the production felt unfocused and unresolved. Two of its stars, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein, were excellent, but you had to question some of the other casting choices. Bernadette Peters, that eternally blooming rose of the American theater, as a faded, dowdy housewife? The hearty Ron Raines as a high-strung businessman on the verge of a nervous breakdown? I am happy to report that since then, Ms. Peters has connected with her inner frump, Mr. Raines has found the brittle skeleton within his solid flesh, and Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Burstein have only improved. Two new additions to the cast, Jayne Houdyshell and Mary Beth Peil, are terrific. This production has taken on the glint of crystalline sharpness. If it still has a few soft spots, it is by and large a taut creation, one that finds a white-hot here and now in the shadows of lost time.                                        

When the original “Follies” opened in 1971, it was very much of its time and a breathtaking departure. Broadway was then specializing in nostalgic musicals (like “No, No, Nanette”) and dramas of middle-aged disenchantment (paging Edward Albee) — a dichotomy appropriate to the sour years of Vietnam and Watergate. “Follies” took on both sides of the equation. And Goldman’s book and especially Mr. Sondheim’s songs captured an almost pathological tension between the two.

The producer Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin) is giving a farewell party for the grand old theater, about to be razed for a parking lot, where his Follies were staged between the World Wars. Among his guests: two former showgirls and their husbands (who were once their stage-door Johnnies). The witheringly droll and elegant Phyllis (Ms. Maxwell) is married to Benjamin Stone (Mr. Raines), a celebrated Manhattan executive, while Sally (Ms. Peters) has settled down in the Midwest with Buddy Plummer (Mr. Burstein), a salesman.                                                                                             

“I wanted something when I came here 30 years ago,” says Phyllis, as she arrives, “but I forgot to write it down, and God knows what it was.” A similar curiosity, both fearful and hopeful, would seem to possess everyone at the reunion. And as the former Follies folk — who include an aging movie star played to the comic hilt by the British musical star Elaine Paige — tentatively perform their old routines, the sequined and plumed phantoms of their past selves hover nearby. 

In the second act Phyllis, Ben, Buddy and Sally sing and dance out their wintry discontents in fantasy sequences that use clashing form and content to parallel the differences between cheery then and somber now. (Derek McLane’s set captures the contrasts with flair and efficiency.)                                                                             

Directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett — and staged with a sumptuousness that would be unthinkable today — the 1971 “Follies” was Broadway’s ultimate ghost story, steeped in a hungry and shimmering darkness. In Mr. Schaeffer’s version neither the ghosts nor the darkness loom as large. Though gorgeously costumed by Gregg Barnes, the spectral showgirls don’t really seem to know why they’re there. And Mr. Carlyle’s period choreography, though often charming, lacks the grandeur and precision of Bennett’s.                

Where this “Follies” excels is in its psychological portraiture and character-defining use of Mr. Sondheim’s intricately layered songs. (James Moore is the sensitive musical director.) Though few of the performers are natural pastiche artists, they evoke enough of yesteryear’s modes and moods to suggest that they’ve been around. And they skillfully illuminate the tug of war — between youth and age, optimism and cynicism — that swirls within Mr. Sondheim’s score.                                                                          

That tension surfaces most benignly in the showstopping “Who’s That Woman,” in which the former Weismann Girls, led by a first-rate Terri White, recreate an old production number. Watch their faces as they go though nearly forgotten paces, embracing, and recoiling from, the blithe young things they once were.                           

The great first-act trio of musical routines — an addled misfire in Washington — now registers as a moving counterpoint of attitudes: the starry-eyed rapture of Susan Watson (Kim in the original “Bye Bye Birdie”) and Don Correia as a veteran soft-shoe team; the purring, knowing self-exploitation of Ms. Peil as a French chanteuse who now makes her living in perfume; and the sublime, self-delighted feistiness of Ms. Houdyshell as the weathered but enduring singer of “Broadway Baby.”                                                 

Not all the characters are similarly at ease with what they have become, and they fail to heed the show’s central admonition, “Never look back” (touchingly sung here by Rosalind Elias with Viennese-operetta flourishes). As Ms. Paige performs “I’m Still Here” — with a galvanizing fierceness that makes this much-performed song sound fresh and stinging — it’s not just an anthem of survival but also of rage against ravaging time. A performance-honing anger defines each of the four central characters too. Ms. Peters, who in Washington looked entirely too sexy to be Sally, now has the eloquently crestfallen aspect of a woman who’s almost given up on life but sees the glimmer of a last chance. The new wig and dress help to play down her natural radiance, but it’s the fractured quality in her singing voice (most affectingly deployed in the torchy “Losing My Mind”) and line readings that puts across the character as someone for whom resentment is sliding into madness.      

Mr. Burstein does his best work to date as the chatty, glad-handing Buddy, whose disappointment chills his every smile. His fantasy number, “Buddy’s Blues,” becomes a blistering diatribe against unshakable ambivalence. And Mr. Raines, though saddled with some of Goldman’s more tedious “smart” dialogue, exudes the fever-pitched heartiness you see in politicians just before their careers crash.                                                            

As for Ms. Maxwell, she gets better every time I see her. Her Phyllis (the part for which Alexis Smith won a Tony) is the show’s most dazzling embodiment of someone trying both to reclaim and to move beyond her receding past. Her “Could I Leave You?,” Phyllis’s lacerating assertion of independence to her husband, overflows with both tenderness and hostility.                                                                                                   

You see, the girl who fell in love with Ben still lurks anxiously beneath the glossy veneer that Phyllis has since acquired. The younger selves of Phyllis, Ben, Sally and Buddy are dexterously incarnated here by Kirsten Scott, Nick Verina, Lora Lee Gayer and Christian Delcroix. But they’re almost superfluous. The four stars of this “Follies” give X-ray performances, in which lives past and souls divided can be seen clearly beneath the skin. Like Mr. Sondheim’s music, they make harmony out of the jangling contradictions that come with being alive.

New York Times

New York Post: "Only score's of note"

In the right hands, "Follies" is a punch in the gut -- set to a fantastic score. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 musical juxtaposes past and present, reality and fantasy. It can go from a soul-baring solo to an over-the-top number in a flash. And instead of feel-good catharsis, it delivers regret and disillusion.

But the revival that opened last night is in the shaky mitts of journeyman director Eric Schaeffer and a tentative cast led by Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell and soap-opera star Ron Raines. Rather than a seamless whole, the show feels like barely connected musical numbers of varying quality.

The story centers on alums from the company of a Ziegfeld-like impresario who reunite at their old theater. Among them are former showgirls Sally (Peters) and Phyllis (Maxwell), and their respective husbands, Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Raines).

Because the older characters are literally shadowed by their younger selves, we see our lead quartet in the bitter, frustrated present of 1971, and as hopeful 20-somethings three decades earlier.

Too bad the leads come up short. Maxwell renders "Could I Leave You?" with patrician rage, but in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," she can't keep up with Warren Carlyle's choreography and Sondheim's tongue-twisting lyrics.

Peters, meanwhile, suggests a degree of mental imbalance in Sally, but sounds wobbly -- though this adds uncomfortable poignancy to "Losing My Mind."

The other former showgirls have less depth, but they do get brilliant specialty numbers that pastiche the golden-age styles of Romberg, Gershwin and Porter, while bearing Sondheim's unmistakable stamp.

Rising to the top is British star Elaine Paige, who displays unexpected comic self-awareness as Carlotta, the aging diva trumpeting the up-yours anthem "I'm Still Here." The sturdy Jayne Houdyshell channels a hopeful showbiz kid on "Broadway Baby," and Terri White's crooning of "Who's That Woman" is like warm butterscotch trickling over ice cream.

These all work as so many tasty bonbons, but "Follies" demands more: a real vision of theater.

It won't come from Schaeffer, whose few ideas aren't even brought to full fruition. The ghostly chorus girls haunting the theater in Gregg Barnes' fantastical outfits are a nice touch, but they're underused. And when the fantasy-driven "Loveland" sequence hijacks the second act, it should transport us to a different realm, not a gigantic potpourri from Laura Ashley.

Oh well: At least those glorious songs are still here.

New York Post

Newsday: "'Follies': A Sondheim revival for the ages"

For decades, those of us who missed the legendary "Follies" premiere in 1971 have been nostalgic for a production worthy of Stephen Sondheim's haunting and magnificent monument to musical-theater nostalgia, to roads not taken and grown-up pleasures that might have been.

Finally, we have this one -- the first staged "Follies" I've seen that wouldn't work better as just a concert of blazingly theatrical Sondheim songs without James Goldman's mawkish dialogue. This rich and wrenching revival -- first directed by Eric Schaeffer at the Kennedy Center last spring and starring, for starters, Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell -- seems blissfully unaware of any such problem.

Instead, Schaeffer, a head-spinning 28-piece orchestra and an enormous cast of singing, acting individuals recreate the reunion of aging showgirls with an emotional intimacy that thrives within layers of story lines and timelines and captivating faded spectacle. Even the cavernous Marquis Theatre almost seems built for humanity. (Still, try to sit close.)

It is party night before the Weismann -- i.e. Ziegfeld -- Theatre will be wrecked for a parking lot. Stars and chorines from 1918 through the '40s have returned, some with spouses, all with baggage. Ghosts of their young selves mingle hopefully between the regrets while gorgeous leggy zombies in peacock headdresses silently taunt from catwalks on the shadowy skeleton set. (Acutely observed costumes are by Gregg Barnes, surprising set is by Derek McLane.)

The main plot involves two unhappily married, marvelously portrayed couples: Peters as the former ingénue depressed in Phoenix, Danny Burstein in a breakout performance as her husband with the salesman smile, Maxwell as the follies girl who learned to be a trophy wife for Ron Raines, the self-loathing hotshot.

But star turns are for everyone. One after another, these songs shake our preconceptions about the limitations of standard musical forms -- from operetta (for richly mature diva Rosalind Elias) to vaudeville to faux-Frenchy jazz (a slinky Mary Beth Peil). The show includes arguably the world's wittiest bad-divorce song, the most raucously self-lacerating I-need-you-to-go-away blues, the savviest I'm-still-here anthem (slyly nailed by Elaine Paige) and, with "Broadway Baby" (deliciously cast against type with Jayne Houdyshell), a hymn to a sensibility beyond the tapping feet of 42nd Street.

Sondheim honors and satirizes the illusions of the American dream while pointing the direction for the musical-theater's future. Imagine a ghost-haunted variety show in nirvana.


Variety: "Follies"

The Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's "Follies," when done right, is one of the glories of the American musical. The new revival, a transfer from the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is done right. Playgoers who despaired of ever seeing an effective mounting of "Follies" and old-timers who despaired of ever seeing one that wasn't a pale reflection of the legendary 1971 original can plan a visit to the Marquis Theater without trepidation. With eagerness, in fact: Boosted by three especially fine performances, this "Follies" is thrilling and terrific.

Tuner, boasting Sondheim's most abundant score and somewhat hampered by Goldman's moody book, has had a famously problematic existence; even the fabled premiere, staged by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, met a mixed reception and proved a financial wipeout. Current edition, directed by D.C. favorite Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle ("Finian's Rainbow"), doesn't offer the mesmerizing dazzle of the original, but the original was all but smothered by layers of neuroses, ghosts and pretensions. Here, somehow, the problems evinced in virtually all major productions of "Follies" seem sandpapered away.

Present edition offers a strong array of talent. Jan Maxwell, who received Tony nominations for two comedies last season, here displays considerable musical talents as the "dressy but cold as a slab" Phyllis. Maxwell is practically perfect, her performance slightly marred by her closing number, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." The trouble seems not to be with her dancing but with the choreography; the number is done in Jack Cole style, and the performer, rather than her character, seems uncomfortable. Ron Raines is strong as her husband Ben; his climactic breakdown in "Live, Laugh, Love" is especially effective.

Standing out is Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer, the small-time salesman hopelessly in love with the wrong girl. An adept musical comedian (recently in "South Pacific"), Burstein is revealed to be a surprisingly powerful dramatic actor. In his hands, Buddy -- for the first time in 40 years of "Follies" watching -- makes sense to this viewer. Burstein's burlesqued rendition of "Buddy's Blues" is perhaps the highlight of the evening. (Chorus girl Kiira Schmidt, as Margie in this number, deserves special mention for her droll two minutes in the spotlight.)

Bernadette Peters, who gave a revelatory performance last season as Desiree in "A Little Night Music," makes a bravely original but ultimately unconvincing Sally. The character is admittedly unstable, but Peters plays it like something out of Albee -- thus seeming stylistically mismatched with everyone else. When those big ballads come along, we can't tell whether Sally is struggling with her emotions or Peters is just struggling with the notes.

The stars are supplemented by a crowd of featured ladies whom Sondheim provides solo spots in which to shine, and shine they do. Jayne Houdyshell (as the "Broadway Baby") and Terri White (as the woman in the mirror) are both ferocious knockouts, with Mary Beth Peil (as Solange from Paree) and Susan Watson (paired with Don Correia in an old-time dance act) every bit as welcome. Biggest surprise is the Franz Lehar/Victor Herbert pastiche "One More Kiss," from opera singer Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz as her younger ghost, which unaccountably stops the show. Elaine Paige, the Brit star who in years past created such roles as the title character of "Evita" and "Cats" highlight Grizabella, ups the evening's voltage with flashes of humor and an effective "I'm Still Here."

Set is functional and costumes generally OK, both outclassed by Natasha Katz's skillful lighting. (She cannily keeps moving odd-man-out Burstein into shadows, for example.) A key contribution comes from the pit and soundboard. Every bar of Jonathan Tunick's exquisite orchestration is well played by James Moore's 28-piece orchestra, while the sound design by Kai Harada renders every note and every word far more clear than is ordinarily the case -- all without pasting bug-like microphones on the actors' foreheads.

Show is scheduled through New Year's Day, after which it must make way for the incoming revival of "Evita" -- unless business remains strong and the Nederlanders can provide an alternate home for the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, that is, in which case this "Follies" could prove a mighty contender come awards season.


Washington Post: "Kennedy Center's 'Follies' steps onto Broadway with fleet feet"

Reaffirming that an out-of-town workout is still a show’s optimal fitness program, the Kennedy Center revival of “Follies,” seen in Washington last spring, has landed on Broadway as a fleeter-footed, more consistently exhilarating incarnation of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s masterstroke 1971 musical.

The weakling elements evident in Washington last spring have been resiliently bulked up. The improvements begin with the pivotal performance of Bernadette Peters, whose lovelorn Sally had seemed shallowly conceived. Now, in the Marquis Theatre, where the production officially opened Monday night, the veteran Sondheim interpreter has found a poignant core for Sally, a woman awash in regrets-soaked delusion.

Her rendition of Sally’s torch-song pastiche, the glorious “Losing My Mind,” might not garner the loudest applause on an evening when audiences cheer the various deserving stars often — and no group more than the assorted mature ladies led by Terri White, who tap-dance with elan to the delicious “Who’s That Woman?” Still, “Losing My Mind” is a stunner: Peters sings as if in the grip of a near catatonic spell, the lyrics enveloping her in a choking swoon of despair.

“Follies” is the portrait of two marriages in extremis, bonds that are coming apart as the couples mingle with other show-business fossils at a reunion of ex-showgirls on the stage of a grand old theater, about to be turned into a parking lot. If the show, set in the early ’70s, once seemed to be about decay and loss of faith in a crumbling society, this new version, directed by Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, for the most part wears a kinder, more sentimental face.

This softer “Follies” lacks the shattering edge of the original, when director Harold Prince and his choreographer Michael Bennett evoked in the young ghosts of the Follies girls who float across the stage the terrifying sense of the ravages of time and the approach of death. The creative team behind this production has made the calculation that old age ain’t so bad after all; it’s sort of a baby boomer’s vision of “Follies.”

So if the evening doesn’t resonate with much aching authority, it’s packed with entertainment. These dames still know how to light up a stage. And there’s much more to savor in this treatment since it played a sold-out run in the Eisenhower Theater. The delights now include a lighter, tighter portrayal by Elaine Paige of the boozy floozy Carlotta. She’s turned the has-been Carlotta into a funnier, and therefore sexier, creature, and her barn-burning survivor song, “I’m Still Here,” really is a show-stopper.

What’s happened is that everyone is now playing at the level established by the Washington installment’s two standard-bearers, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein. As before, Maxwell’s bitter Phyllis — Sally’s erstwhile romantic rival — cuts a striking, smashing figure, and Burstein reprises his invigoratingly anguished turn as Sally’s husband, Buddy. Ron Raines, too, feels like a better fit than previously as Phyllis’s steely, worldly mate, Ben.

But perhaps the shrewdest changes have come in Schaeffer’s recasting of two key supporting roles: Mary Beth Peil now plays the Gallic chanteuse, Solange, and the exuberant Jayne Houdyshell replaces Linda Lavin as Hattie, who delivers the show’s signature anthem of backstage survival, “Broadway Baby.”

Houdyshell’s buoyant energy and frumpy countenance among the aging former glamour girls prove unlikely assets here; she looks as if she should still be playing Albert’s mother Mae in “Bye Bye Birdie,” as she did in a Broadway revival two years ago. But when she strides downstage for her solo, bathed in Natasha Katz’s brilliant lighting, Houdyshell seems to pick the production up on her shoulders and lift it onto a more ebullient tier.

The pressures exerted on “Follies” by some of Goldman’s starchy, dated episodes of marital whining have been relieved by Schaeffer’s sure-handed pacing and Carlyle’s crackling dances. Even some of the slightest vignettes are more effective, as with, for example, the quicksilver rendition of “Rain on the Roof” by Susan Watson and another of the production’s newcomers, Don Correia. The opera singer Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz, who plays her younger doppelganger, also create a moving duet of “One More Kiss,” accompanied splendidly by conductor James Moore and a 28-piece orchestra.

“Follies” executes a head-spinning leap after Act 1 (the original played without intermission) when the four principals — Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben — are transported into a Ziegfeld (here called Weismann) Follies of the mind. They’re each given a number inspired by their psychic paralysis: Buddy sings about loving a woman who doesn’t love him; Phyllis, about an inability to reconcile her younger and older selves. It’s a daring, though less-than-perfect, segue from what comes before. Still, with excellent assists from costume designer Gregg Barnes and set designer Derek McLane, who wrap this artificial “Loveland” in sublimely ridiculous pulchritude, the four songs dazzlingly survey a landscape carpeted in discord and disappointment.

The sunny solidity of Schaeffer’s staging doesn’t quite prepare us for the cold ambiguity of the musical’s final moments. And yet, this “Follies” is a becoming mosaic, its pleasures amplified by the prodigious talent on display, up and down the rickety kick line.

Washington Post

  Back to Top