Nov 20, 2017

The Review Files, Sondheim Edition

The Sondheim Review, December 2011

Bittersweet Homecoming

By Rob Weinert-Kendt

The perfect Follies, it should be admitted by even its most fervent acolytes, does not exist, and may in fact never have walked the earth, even in its legendary 1971 Boston tryouts and subsequent 15-month original Broadway run. This phantasmal swirl of a musical, in which scenes and songs trace elliptical orbits through a nebulous cloud of faded glitter and wrecking-ball dust, comes together, if it does at all, only when these free-floating elements align in the perception of the attentive viewer, however fleetingly. All theater is ephemeral, of course, alive only in the moment of performance, but it's especially true of Follies.

This alignment of the planets is still rarer due to the show's daunting scope, both in its sheer budgetary scale and in the range of its aesthetic demands. It requires not only a large complement of acting-dancing-singing triple threats, but a double cast of them, in young and old flavors. It's a casting puzzle with several moving parts, literally, and by some accounts even the original production didn't get it "right." A colleague of mine, who has seen the show in four different productions and possesses many more recordings of its score than have been legally released, recently confided that his ideal Follies is a mental chimera, a Frankenstein assembled in his mind from the various productions and recordings he’s seen and heard—his favorite Phyllis from one, a Ben from another, this Sally with that Buddy, a stray Carlotta from an obscure recording, and so on.

This colleague, who like myself is too young to have seen the original 1971 production, has found plenty of fresh parts with which to stock his dream Follies in the current Broadway revival, a hit production transferred from Kennedy Center. And director Eric Schaeffer's production seems to satisfy most of those who've wished for a Follies worthy of their lavish imaginings, as little expense has been spared, from the full 28-piece orchestra to the garish costumes for the Loveland sequence (courtesy of Gregg Barnes). For myself, though I find its musical virtues nearly definitive, this Follies is on the whole a bittersweet homecoming. What I glimpse through its whorl of disparate elements—many if not all of them exquisitely conceived and rendered—is not quite a great show but a great idea for a show, or perhaps more accurately, a number of great ideas for shows.

Sondheim and James Goldman's central idea, of course, is to use a reunion party of the Weismann Follies girls as a way to both evoke and upend rosy-eyed nostalgia for the musical theater of the 1930s, the pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein era that gave us much of the great American songbook, if not our most enduring stage musicals. This gently deconstructive project, whose signature images of older dancers shadowed by their younger selves is still deeply moving, largely evaporates by show's end, which comes to dwell instead on the cross-examination of two foundering marriages originally formed around the Follies stage door.

The link between these retrospective concepts—the ensemble reunion and the brokenhearted quartet—is, I think, meant to be in the way the hope and optimism of the carefree Follies era impossibly raised expectations of fairy-tale romance and an ever-brighter future for Buddy and Sally, Phyllis and Ben, now middle-aged and soured on everything. Follies wants to contrast the sunny bromides of midcentury musical theater ("You're Gonna Love Tomorrow") with gritty truths about aging, death, and regrets ("The Road You Didn't Take").

But one curiosity about the show's structure is that the chronology of decline is reversed; "Your'e Gonna Love Tomorrow" comes well into the second act, as part of a flashback to a Follies-style revue (the Loveland sequence), while "The Road You Didn't Take" is the second of a series of bracing first-act reality checks among the lead couples. Indeed, in Follies, the backward-looking expressions of regret largely precede the forward-looking effusions of hope. While it's true that a clutch of vintage Follies numbers are offered by the ensemble early in the first act ("Rain on the Roof"/"Ah, Paris"/"Broadway Baby"), these don't express the aspirations of our four leads. Follies is not as literally backwards as Merrily We Roll Along, but as in that show we're made to wait to see what these people first saw in each other, and by the time we do, it's too little too late.

There are three notable exceptions to this reversal of expectations and disappointments, and they give this production—and, I'd imagine, nearly any production of Follies—some inarguable high points. First, there's the perfect, self-contained musical scene "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," which accomplishes in miniature the flashback-doubling the whole show struggles to achieve. Similarly, there's the revelatory mirror number, "Who's That Woman," forcefully led by Terri White (though, it must be said, less than thrillingly choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who understandably doesn't even try to fill Michael Bennett's tap shoes here). And "I'm Still Here," that sui generis not-quite-pastiche showstopper, gets a jagged but grippingly defiant interpretation from Elaine Page.

The lead performances here work better individually than together. The hulking Ron Raines, in particular, nails the ashy bitterness of Ben's self-inflicted despair, and makes the case for songs like "The Road You Didn't Take" and "Too Many Mornings" as singularly unromantic yet somehow rapturous ruminations—songs no one else but Sondheim could have written. But he's an odd match for the petite Bernadette Peters, who is herself something of a rough fit for the sad, deluded Sally. Peters is never less than compelling, but Sally's deep-dish melancholia doesn't quite harmonize with Peters' brittle neurosis, so that her "Losing My Mind" doesn't sear and soar like it can, though her earlier "In Buddy's Eyes" is transfixing (that reversal again).

Danny Burstein, though too young by about a decade, is an ideal Buddy; a tummler with a paradoxical gravity, Burstein is both gladhanding salesman and near-tragic hero, Willy Loman Jr. with ants in his pants. (Carlyle's choreography noticeably fails him, though, on the one-note soliloquy "The Right Girl.")

I've saved the best for last: Jan Maxwell's Phyllis may be definitive, not least because, while her performance has an effortlessly lived-in quality, Maxwell has nevertheless not taken the easy route with the character. Phyllis can be a scene stealer and a ham; she's given some of Goldman's most piquant zingers (there aren't many to go around), and she has the crowd-pleasing profile of the cougar diva, dripping world-weary elegance and keeping a raised eyebrow trained on the young "talent." But Phyllis is a vulnerable soul at bottom, a social climber in a loveless marriage, and it's to Maxwell's credit that she shadows her commanding numbers—the peerless kiss-off "Could I Leave You?," the sassy "Story of Lucy and Jessie"—with a sense of the neediness behind the sneer and the leer.

I can't praise enough the music direction of James Moore, who makes Sondheim's score sparkle and sting, but who crucially lets his lead performers luxuriate in the songs; I've seldom heard Sondheim's music delivered with such ease and confidence, and with none of the familiar anxiety about meeting its daunting musical demands. This unhurried approach pays huge dividends for the lead quartet, who feel throughout like they're singing in character, in the moment, even—remarkably—in the pastiche numbers. Though I missed the chemistry among these four, and I remain unconvinced that the far-flung planets of Follies can ever align to form the masterpiece many of its advocates claim it to be, to witness Sondheim's score performed with such attention to its full breadth of musical and dramatic potential makes this production a good start toward the ideal Follies I will now begin forming in my mind.

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