Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

bpetersRon Raines, as Benjamin Stone, and Bernadette Peters, as Sally Durant Plummer. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK – The legendary James Goldman-Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies," about a reunion of showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies era, here called the Weisman Follies, is back, produced by the Kennedy Center at the Marquis Theatre, located at 46th Street and Broadway.

This revival of "Follies," which has been very well-received by the New York critics, has the same inherent pluses and minuses that it had when the show debuted in 1971 in a luxurious production put together by the Broadway royalty of the day: Harold Prince, the show’s producer-director; Michael Bennett, co-director and choreographer; Boris Aronson, scenic designer; and Florence Klotz, costumer. It also featured the perfect cast: Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, John McMartin and Gene Nelson.

The plus-aspects of the show have been the constants: Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. His dazzling, ingenious score has grown more rhapsodic with time, and now it is being sumptuously played by an orchestra of 28, an anomaly on Broadway today. The show’s big minus is James Goldman’s glib book, which centers around the marital woes of two Weisman chorines and the men they woo and wed. I think the book has always undermined the show and has unfortunately prohibited "Follies" from ever becoming a popular hit.

The original production ran for a little over a year and lost most of its capitalization, $800,000, a walloping sum for the time. When the show tried out in Boston, Mr. Bennett recognized its shortcomings; he wanted to keep the show on the road longer and have playwright Neil Simon fix the musical’s book. Mr. Prince, putting on his producer’s hat, vetoed the idea, saying he couldn’t afford to delay the show’s scheduled New York opening. Thus, the fate of "Follies" was sealed; it would be forever a brilliantly flawed classic on the American musical theater’s spectrum.

"Follies" is set on the stage of the soon-to-be-demolished Weisman Theater, where a group of 50ish alumni have gathered for a farewell party to reminisce, drink and show off their routines one last time. Quickly, the show zeroes in on two former stage door Johnnies, Ben (Ron Raines) and Buddy (Danny Burstein), and the two Weisman girls, Sally (Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), whom they married. Both couples are rich and, of course, miserable. Caught in the throes of middle-age angst, they have unknowingly turned into the Bickersons. The only time they are not irritatingly harpy is when they open their mouths to sing one of Mr. Sondheim’s beautiful, bittersweet love songs. Only then, through his poetic lyrics, do we get a glimpse of these people’s true feelings.

The role of Sally, the neurotic housewife from Phoenix, really doesn’t suit Ms. Peters, but at 63 she still looks like a porcelain doll and plays and sings the role for all it’s worth. I would not have picked Ms. Maxwell to play Phyllis, though she has the height and cool sophisticated hauteur of the part down pat; her rendition of "Could I Leave You?" is superb.

Mr. Raines’s and Mr. Burstein’s roles are a little easier; they are unhappy, but not required to emote as much. Mr. Raines is believable as a stuffy former diplomat, and he lends his rich tenor to a couple of the show’s best songs, "The Road You Didn’t Take" and "Too Many Mornings," a duet he shares with Ms. Peters. And Mr. Burstein does his best to make the comic sadness of Buddy real.

This "Follies" really shines when the fabulous Weisman supporting ladies let loose with a series of Sondheim pastiche numbers and the show suddenly starts to levitate. Elaine Page, from London – where she played the original "Evita" – here plays Carlotta Campion and sings the classic "I’m Still Here" with great gusto and authority. The extraordinary Terri White, as Stella Deems, rallies the ladies to center stage to recreate their signature Follies song-and-dance number "Who’s That Woman?" Leah Horowitz and opera’s 81-year-old Rosalind Elias, as the young and old Heidi Schiller, let their voices rise beautifully with "One More Kiss."

One big mistake was letting the talented Jayne Houdyshell, as Hattie Walker, sing "Broadway Baby" unkempt, with her hair uncombed and without wearing makeup. She looks as if she belongs across the street playing Grandma in "The Addams Family," not at a fancy Follies party.

The direction of Eric Shaffer struck me as elementary and at crucial times, more melodramatic than theatrical. When he tries to be creative, he tends to employ watered-down expressionism devices that often fall flat. Warren Carlyle’s choreography is utilitarian and doesn’t add anything new or original to the musical numbers. He is not much help to nondancers like Ms. Maxwell in her big Act Two number, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," or to Mr. Burstein in his song-and-dance solo, "The Right Girl," which comes off as pretty lackluster.

Aficionados of "Follies" who have seen many productions of the show over the years might forgive many of the faults in this production and bide their time until the music starts up again. Maybe just hearing a full orchestra play Sondheim’s genius is satisfying enough for them. But first-time viewers with no knowledge of the show’s legacy might be disappointed and leave the theater scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss is about.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.