Monday, September 26, 2011

REVIEW: Follies

At the Marquis Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 40 minutes, with an intermission. Starring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Danny Burstein, Elaine Paige, Jane Houdyshell, Terri White, Mary Beth Piel, Rosalind Elias, Susan Watson, Don Correia, and Laura Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott, Nick Verina, Christian Delcroix and Leah Horowitz. Musical direction by James Moore. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Directed by Eric Schaeffer.

Grade: A+

I came to this Follies as one needing to be wooed, not as a fan already. I had never seen a production of the show and had only the original Broadway cast recording, such as it is, to go by. A self-proclaimed Sondheim fan, I have often counted Follies as second only to Pacific Overtures as my least favorite Sondheim show. But many a friend has counseled me, “this is one of those shows you have to see to fully appreciate the score and the book.”

Happily, all who have told me that were so right, and I am so grateful that this revival production has been my gateway into what is now in the top three of my favorite Sondheim shows, and probably among my top ten most amazing theatrical experiences. Ever.

I can, in all honesty, say that I went into the Marquis Theatre with as open a mind toward the show as possible. In fact, my biggest concern wasn’t even really about the show, but about Bernadette Peters: would she win me back after her so-so performance earlier this year in A Little Night Music? (She did, and then some.) Yes, walking to the theatre, I was fully prepared to just let it happen. And it had me from the second I walked through the doors.

Ensconced with tattered grey material on every wall, and hanging overhead, too, the house immediately plunges you into the world of a decaying, make that dead, theatre. Its once glorious countenance signaled only by a mere sliver of proscenium still in pristine shape while the rest of the stage frame lies crumpled on the floor or hanging precariously as if to collapse at any second. A sense of sadness, imminent danger, and of past glory clinging to life just before it is no longer even a memory pervading the air. And then there is the background noise - a cacophony of groaning, settling metal, creaking floors, and the echo of debris falling somewhere unseen - which surrounds you in every way that the intense visual doesn’t. And then there are the distant sounds of tap dancing and the occasional girlish giggle that seem to bubble up and can be heard over the ominous din. This is a haunted house, and it is both scary and profoundly sad.

"Beautiful Girls"
The same can be said for the show itself, the story of a reunion of follies girls at the very theatre where they became legends. The theatre, set for demolition the next day, creaks and groans, but stays together for one last follies. As each of the ladies performs her signature number, and the occasional production number is recreated, we find that their lives have gone in a variety of directions, some successful some not, and most mundane. And so they have come back to relive their highpoint of glory and to assess the damage others have suffered as their lives together as showgirls diverged and are now reunited for one night only. The central story concerns the marriages of two of the follies girls who were best friends, but are now miles (figuratively and, on the surface, literally) apart.

From the very moment the show starts, there is, to be blunt, a devastating mind-fuck going on here. Everything your eyes and ears are picking up suggests two or three things at once. And no matter what, you cannot escape the last breaths of the very building you are in. (This is no small irony, considering that the Marquis Theatre exists at the expense of several theaters that had to be demolished so that a hotel could be put up in Times Square.) The ladies are still so vibrant and full of life that they sell you immediately on the idea that this will be a fun, glamorous look back at a time that no longer exists. Some of these gals are old and they still have it; even the younger ones who are beginning to show their age manage to “bring it” when they see the elder gals going all out. Nowhere is this more evident than the opening number, “Beautiful Girls,” as they parade down the grand staircase and go through the motions of poses and arm figures that they once did in their glory days. The number ends and the audience cheers in kind. Good for them, right? But there is also a nagging feeling behind it all, that we’ve moved on and they haven’t. That they peaked in life when they still had so much of it to get through.

"Who's That Woman?"
Terri White (center)
 Then there is the “Who’s That Woman?” production number, led by the remarkable Terri White, a look at what was a huge number, now reduced to a memory, with instructions being yelled out, “remember to look in your mirrors, ladies, not at me!” Joining them are the younger versions of themselves, dazzling in their bejeweled costumes and glittery shoes and hats, each with perfect extension, timing and clarity of movement. At once we can see what was and what it is, and once again we cheer. And then the lights go out for a split second, and come up on the stage filled only with the gals “now.” The specter of their past glory gone in an instant, and somehow the applause amps up. Are we that thrilled that these older ladies can still get through the number? Are we honoring their age? I clapped my hands off just like everyone else, until I literally had to stop in order to wipe away the tears that were now rolling down both cheeks. And it occurred to me then that I was not crying tears of joy at the glorious number just performed, but at just how unbearably sad the entire enterprise is.

Getting one shot at reliving our greatest life moments - who wouldn’t leap at the chance? But then it would be over. And then the regret of things left undone, the anger at the way things didn’t go as planned, the mourning of a life beyond the folly of youth sets in. And there are the could-a, would-a, should-as that set in. I am certain that even ten years ago, at the last revival of Follies, the effect would not have been as personally profound, for now I am middle aged and still have a lot ahead of me, but can recognize a past of misspent youth, of opportunities not taken. And it hit me.  Hard. There is something decidedly cruel about all of the meanings of the show’s title when you get to a certain age, isn’t there? I suppose that it is this very duality that has, and will forever, divide audiences. Those of us who revel in the entertainment value of a stunning performance that also makes you examine your own life will always be balanced by those in the audience who leave only mildly sated by the “Loveland” sequence that ends the show, offering the evening's only real glamour, color and literal follies show.

Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell

With a cast of 41 and a full orchestra in the pit, one imagines that this very well could be the last Follies Broadway will ever see of this caliber. And the production values are as stunning as the sheer number of those involved. The scenic, costume and lighting designs by Derek McLane, Gregg Barnes and Natasha Katz, respectively, represent each of these artists at the top of their game. Designing an environment that is both death and decay and life and larger than life simultaneously is no easy task. McLane’s work stretches throughout the theatre, but the simplicity of the bare bones stage itself (all four stories of it) allows for all possibilities, while the magnitude of it speaks volumes on behalf of the larger themes of the story. The setting amazes for both its simplicity and the incredible attention to detail. Similarly, Barnes’ costumes give you nearly everything you need to know about each character even at first glance, while the detail and complexity of each follies costume is evocative of a past glamour and glory that today, as we creep ever so further from that bygone era, we can still appreciate the work. And perhaps most revelatory is the completely unobtrusive lighting by Ms. Katz, who has never done better work. Until the “Loveland” sequence, there is never an over-theatricality about the lighting. Indeed, the best lighting, they say, is the kind you never consciously notice. And like the ghosts of the past that haunt the theatre, her lighting comes and goes unnoticed, ethereal and otherworldly.


Buddy's Folly

Sally's Folly

Ben's Folly

Phyllis' Folly

Warren Carlyle’s choreography is spot on - thrilling where it needs to be, and sad when it needs to be. He, like everyone else, has managed to find the perfect balance of past glory and present reality of aging. As I said above, the dance numbers beg you to applaud, and you give it generously, all while wiping away the tears. One can only imagine the research that went into creating early 20th century style dances, vaudevillian tap routines, and even showcase jazz numbers. Each and every one brilliantly conceived and executed. And then there is Eric Schaeffer’s direction, which in the past I have taken to task and nitpicked out of frustration. I have always felt that his work has had potential, but is always maddeningly underdone. Not anymore. I could quibble and say that every scene probably should not start down stage center, which it does. And I could really nitpick and say that his use of the second level upstage is inconsistent, which it is. But even those two minor things are barely noticeable compared to the subtle, ingenious strokes he has painted this canvas with. That he has consistently mined the script for both the surface reality and the deeply melancholy subtext is remarkable. The big touches - every time a new follies girl is presented you know immediately what she was to any given year’s show - are deepened and detailed by the minute gestures, pauses and shared glances that undermine any and all attempts to cover up the passing of time or any number of psychological goings on. The gesture, or lack of one, often tells us more than any five pages of dialogue could or should. The details of each performance wordlessly tell us about relationships and lives spent wondering, “what if?” I look forward to Mr. Schaeffer’s next efforts.

Elaine Paige
 Of course, much of the brilliance of Follies lays at the feet of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious score (whoever allowed the OBCR to be released should be arrested for crimes against art) and the subtle book by James Goldman (this version is his paring down of the original). But as other revivals, and even certain parts of the original production I’m told, revealed that all of the brilliance of the script, songs, direction and design are for naught without a great cast of actors who also happen to sing, dance, and be “of a certain age.” I can’t imagine a more perfectly cast production than this one. I have one partial quibble here, though. And that is the casting of Elaine Paige as Carlotta. She is the only person onstage whose present day veneer never seems to give way enough to let us see any of the trials and tribulations she has undergone. Even when confronted with the possibility of a one evening affair, she rebukes it with a musical comedy style delivery of joke. It is a small quibble, though, as it all can be justified by saying that Carlotta is the only one at the reunion that is there to show off what she has become, a celebrated screen star. She did not peak at the follies, she got out and got bigger. Still, no one gets through life or climbs the ladder of success without a few scars. It would have been nice to see a few in Ms. Paige’s performance. (Still, what thrill to see one of musical theatre’s greatest artists performing at all!)

Before I go any further, I must commend the ensemble boys and girls for superb, high quality work. By necessity, they must be razor sharp and youthfully vital at all times, and they are just exceptional in every way. But special kudos must be given to the ladies who are regaled in gorgeous and huge follies costumes, who appear and disappear on all levels of the set. Their ghostly presence both mesmerizes and terrifies me as they walk through the theatre alternately touching the walls, railings and foundation of the building, as if knowing the end is near, and ever so slowly doing their intricate dance steps and arm choreography as they slowly move through the dark shadows and misty pools of light. Until the very final moment of the show, they haunt the entire production in a way that is both seductive and depressing. Brava, ladies!

Don Correia, Susan Watson,
Jane Houdyshell and Mary Beth Piel

The rest of the cast is impeccable, each skillfully recapturing their past and revealing their present. Susan Watson and Don Correia manage in one brief song, “Rain on the Roof,” to vividly display the great heritage of vaudeville hoofers. Ms. Watson, who gets more stage time, also represents the decay of memory that aging brings, and she does so with a heartbreaking smile that never leaves her face. Then there is the sinewy sexiness of Mary Beth Piel, who slithers and rolls her way through “Ah, Paris!” This gal still has it ALL. And the show-stopping antics of Jane Houdyshell’s “Broadway Baby” are an exercise in timing and minimalism. She gets belly laughs with a sideways glance. And then there is the palpable exuberance of Terri White’s “Who’s That Woman?” whose real life baggage likely informs the strength and undercurrent of pain in her character. Whenever she is on the stage, she brightens up the room. And finally, there is the bravura performance by real life opera great Rosalind Elias, who is making her Broadway debut at 82. Her coloratura in “One More Kiss” cries out brilliance and a life well-lived, and is balanced by the youthful clarity of the gorgeous voice of Leah Horowitz, herself an already accomplished Broadway actress, who, with this performance, seems on the cusp of real stardom.

Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz

The four younger versions of the four main characters are an excellent pairing to their current day counterparts, each clearly having spent much time studying the physical and vocal ways of their corresponding actor. These young triple threats (Nick Verina, Christian Delcroix, Kirsten Scott and Lora Lee Gayer) are stars in the making for sure. They are each as captivating as the people they are emulating. Their part of the Loveland sequence - “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” is a small tour de force.

"You're Gonna Love Tomorrow"
I think it speaks to the power of his stoic and aggravatingly rigid performance that I frequently felt the urge to rush the stage and pummel Ron Raines in the face, so convincing is his cruel performance as Ben Stone. He is rude, arrogant and verbally abusive to any and all women, particularly his desperate housewife, Phyllis and his fling from the past, Sally. Raines possesses the perfect stage presence - he dominates by even being there - and a superb voice, with just the right imperfections to show us what he once was and now is. It is only at the end of the show that he finally breaks, and his true nature comes shining through in what is possibly the only glimmer of optimism at the end of the show.

As Ben’s best friend in the past, Danny Burstein embodies that great guy we all know - charming, adorable, and inevitably in the shadow of those around him. He will always be the sidekick.  He is the nice guy who finishes last personified. And because he is so likeable, it is easier to feel for him, and even empathize with him when he reveals that he has another woman that he keeps house with when he goes away for business. Like all of his work, Mr. Burstein is incredibly detailed and warmly broad, making him easy to connect with immediately and infinitely interesting as you study his performance.

Ron Raines and Danny Burstein

Jan Maxwell, I am beginning to think, is incapable of a less than masterful performance. This leggy, curvy goddess (especially when done up in sequined gowns or fiery dance dresses) still manages to let you see the real woman - caring, suffering, broken woman - beneath the fa├žade of glamour and almost maniacal self-assuredness that her Phyllis portrays to the world. Nothing will hurt her, and yet everything does. Gorgeous to look at, you can still see that life has taken its toll on this one time follies girl. Instead of letting it beat her, though, she has fought to make every let-down and disappointment make her stronger. Probably too strong. This role showcases all of Ms. Maxwell’s talents - drama, comedy, song and dance. Could this be the role that earns her that elusive Tony Award?

If anyone will give her a run for the money in that department, it will be Bernadette Peters, who should be all but guaranteed a Tony nod (if not a third Tony) for her incredible and heartbreaking performance as Sally. From the moment she bounds on stage full of enthusiasm and hope, you also have no doubt that Sally will leave this reunion even more disillusioned than when she arrived. Ms. Peters uses her squeaky, nasally little girlish voice to supreme advantage, easily manipulating us to her side, no matter how much we find out about this lost soul. Her Sally is so neurotic and out of this world that you mourn for her and what she always dreamed of and all that will never be. There is no doubt by the time it is all over that this version of Sally is indeed a hot mess of craziness, one that engenders our sympathy not only for her, but for the friendship it has cost her with Phyllis and for the bad marriage that she has with Buddy. I don’t think Ms. Peters has given such a nuanced, detailed or riveting performance since Song and Dance. And let anyone who doubts her status as one of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim just witness the master class that is her delivery of “Losing My Mind.” It rates right up there with LuPone’s “Don‘t Cry For Me Argentina,” Buckley’s “Memory,” or Lansbury’s “If He Walked Into My Life.”

Jan Maxwell and Bernadette Peters

There is a song that is sometimes done in the show in place of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” called “Ah, But Underneath.” It is the “underneath” that makes this show go from interesting to brilliant. For those who miss that, I can see why Follies is a bit of a letdown. The title, after all, promises the glitz and glamour of Broadway. But that promise goes largely unfulfilled. Instead, as this production beautifully realizes, the real treasures lie in what is not being said or sung. The window card for this production quotes Ben Brantley as saying that it is “one of the greatest musicals ever written.” This Follies certainly lives up to that statement. And to think, three days ago, I hated it.

(Photos by Joan Marcus, Bonneau/Bryan-Brown and Sara Kulrich of The New York Times)

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  1. I love that after so many years of dedication to the musical theatre art form you allowed a show to change your preconceived notions and that what was once one of your least favorite shows has become one of your favorites. I can't wait to see this show now.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Pun! Yes, the turn around was a very pleasant shock. And it reminds me to be very cautious of judging things before seeing the whole product - a lesson many on the Internet could learn and benefit from.



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