For the purposes of being a critic in the new millennium and for contemporary audiences, I almost wish—almost—that I hadn’t seen the original 1971 production of Follies, much less seen it twice, and then took the published script out of the library so that I could type out my own copy (yes, I did that at the age of 17). Between those events, the cast album and a stunningly clear soundboard bootleg recording of that original cast performing the full show on opening night (a recording that has since been digitized and made available for free download; I can’t give you the URL, but if you Google creatively, you can discover it as I did), the notion of the production having been staged 40 years ago is pretty meaningless to me, because the memory is as fresh as a new apple. Well, nearly. To quote one of its characters, “It’s like a movie in my head that plays and plays…the whole damn show.”
It really was the holy grail it’s been cracked up to be, and while I think I’ve been able to review subsequent productions fairly and objectively—and enjoyed a few too—what I’ve never been able to do, will never be able to do, is enjoy any one of them completely on its own terms. One way or another, every major Broadway revival of a musical is a conversation with that musical’s original production, even if only a reactionary conversation, whether or not the new creative team ever witnessed what their predecessors did, because new musicals are created in a gestalt of personnel and in the context of their time, which is a complex miasma well beyond the scope of a “mere” playwright’s point of view…and that’s objective fact…but Follies revivals wind up being a subjective debate with my memory too. And that’s a fairly hopeless proposition.
The show, for the uninitiated, might almost be summarized as a Chekhovian rumination by way of vaudeville, about roads taken and not taken by characters in middle age and beyond, set against a backdrop of the characters’ past: the theatre where the Weisman Follies of their youth appeared between the World Wars. People of the present confront, or are shadowed by, the ghosts of their past; there is an ambitious dual purpose score, part book-specific and contemporary, part commentary in the period style of the Follies. The central quartet are two married couples, the women former Follies girls, the men once their stage-door Johnnies, each relationship now very much on the rocks for different reasons. They consist of the high profile movers and shakers, mogul-politician Ben Stone (Ron Raines) and his glamorous wife Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) and working class traveling salesman Buddy Plummer (Danny Burstein) and his spouse, housewife Sally (Bernadette Peters).
Despite my impossible standard of recalled glories past, I’m very happy about this production for the primary reason that so many people who’ve never seen the show are discovering it and finding it a revelation. And that would seem to be because, while other directors have had their “crack” at Follies, and the chance to bring a vision to it (i.e. Robert Johanson fifteen years ago at Paper Mill, who delivered the glitz but not the Chekhovian drama, and Sam Mendes ten years ago for the Roundabout, who did the reverse), Eric Schaeffer has, at least so it seems to me, really not directed Follies at all so much as he has simply stayed out of its way. As one must in these financially crunched times, his design team has eschewed the opulence of the original for a kind of black box with levels and catwalks (and what could be more appropriate for the bombed out theatre, scheduled for demolition, that is the musical’s setting?); and have created one all-purpose backdrop—a concentric tunnel of roses—for the Loveland sequence. In these environments, both book scenes and musical numbers are attended to in an equally no-frills way without anything much in the way of overall interpretation (notwithstanding individual performers being given the space to find their characterizations); if you will, it’s a modular Follies with the joins between components very carefully smoothed over.
One might of course argue that every musical is rehearsed in its component parts at first, but what’s here is more of a matter-of-fact staging than a creative vision; the only auteurs here are librettist James Goldman and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. And all things considered, that’s not so bad. In fact, for most who attend, it’s tending to be exhilarating. (Why is the show claiming its Broadway ground now as opposed to five years ago, when Casey Nicholaw’s equally well-cast, equally utilitarian but more savvily delivered Follies came in the guise of an Encores! City Center “staged reading,” ready for re-mounting in the manner of Chicago? Who knows? Timing, available financial backing, the pedigree of this one having first been a lauded Kennedy Center production, resourcefulness of the general management team; any or all of these may have played a part. For whatever reason, Follies, in its 40th anniversary, is finally having its overdue “moment.”)
Contributing to the show seeming more like a Follies template than a Follies exploration is the choreography by Warren Carlisle. It’s clean and professional and absolutely fills the bill while being at the same time unremarkable: The book numbers need little but focused blocking; as for the Follies-style numbers, Mr. Carlyle delivers the tropes endemic to the song genres familiarly, without crowding or distracting from the lyrics. (And this is a good place to note first-rate musical direction by James Moore.)
As for the cast…
The personal triumph award goes to Danny Burstein, whose rendition of Buddy is the most dimensional, deep, human and heartbreaking I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a fair number). It’s the first time in a mainstream venue that Mr. Burstein's full-metal drama chops have been permitted to exist side-by-side with his well-established light-comedy expertise, and some may be surprised to see him also tap into a reserve that includes tenderness, frustration and rage. What’s lovelier still is that you never see “the work”; you just see that poor guy, Buddy, real and funny and sad and trying his best. It’s a perfect new millennium musical theatre performance.
The next most laudable performance is that of Jan Maxwell. And here I think few will be surprised. Her charismatic range, as well as her “go-to gal” resourcefulness are likewise well-established; that she’d have the vocal prowess, the elegance, the wit and the fury to make for an iconic Phyllis is practically a given. And she delivers with laser-sharp acuity and intensity. But with that noted: there are moments, for me, when the performance could benefit from even more economy of movement. She tears up the stage and brings down the house with “Could I Leave You?” but the staging has her wandering back and forth, which, despite the rousing power of her delivery, still subtly keeps it from even more power, because once you’ve crossed the stage back and forth, you’ve essentially used up your options, and the repetition notches her up less into righteous rage than semi-controlled hysteria. (Alexis Smith delivered the number in the original almost entirely seated; when her anger finally needed physical expression, she stood. There’s enormous force in that kind of stillness and, ironically, more leeway for variation.) But I don’t put any of that at Ms. Maxwell’s feet. This is a function of the direction being utilitarian rather than, to coin a word, guideful.
The Ben Stone of Ron Raines is probably the best “leading man” delivery of the role I’ve ever seen, with the caveat that casting Ben with a straight-ahead leading man tends to be a common mistake. Ben’s public profile is that of a brilliant, handsome and successful fellow, so gentlemen like Mr. Raines often top the casting list. But beneath the veneer, Stone is self-loathing and terrified…and to keep that subtext bubbling—and to turn it ever-more-progressively into a convincingly shattering breakdown as it starts to emerge—requires an additional set of tools. What Mr. Raines does is sing beautifully (really beautifully), read the lines intelligently (really intelligently) and deliver the outline of the part (I almost typed “the broad outline of the part,” but no, he’s better than that, and savvier)—he makes the point and the audience gets the point. As I say, better and classier than most of his ilk. What he doesn’t do, because it’s not organically a part of his persona, is virtually embody the tacit contradictions of world weariness as a mask over desperation, of dry wit as a deadly weapon, of accomplishment as camouflage for emotional cowardice. This may sound like a tall order of subtext for a poor musical theatre veteran in tersely written scenes, but in a show like Follies it comes with the challenge. And though John McMartin, 1971’s original Ben, was handsome enough to be a leading man, he never had that career and remained always, essentially a character actor. What Mr. Raines takes a full scene to put across, McMartin conveyed in a line, sometimes not even the line itself so much as a flourish or a gesture. And that’s because the key to his performance—and to his casting—was the knowledge that Ben Stone goes through life impersonating a leading man. Beneath the veneer there needs to be someone truly haunted.
And now we come to Bernadette Peters as Sally. I’ll not invoke comparisons to others here. She’s a brilliant performer and, as we all know, the musical theatre star with the longest Sondheim resume, both creating roles and re-creating them. That she would come to play the deluded woman in pursuit of an old flame in this show has to be considered an inevitability. Alas…now…she’s just a little too old for it. I don’t mean chronologically. I mean in terms of vocal stamina, stage persona and to a degree only now starting to become visible (however subtly) physical bearing. She has some lovely moments, but for me there was an equal amount that were simply uncomfortable. And I don’t think this is a case of a star staying late to ruin the party, as it were. I think it’s more a case of a star just past the cusp of accommodation. Days too late. Minutes. Because she’s in keeping with this being a fully functional Follies, for the most part she’s still an asset and the audience, who have loved her so in the past, is as forgiving as affectionate. But I spent too much time being distracted by things I’d rather give her the respect of not cataloguing in print. I will add, however, on an age-free note, it also bothered me that she plays Sally with the character’s pathology on her sleeve. She’s a frenetic, fragile obsessive upon her entrance, rather than a starry-eyed romantic. And that takes the suspense out of whether or not she’ll wind up with Ben, which should loom as a real possibility if “Too Many Mornings” is to be more than just a beautiful ballad of yearning. It’s only in the aftermath, when she declares that soon she and Ben will marry—which shakes Ben “awake” to realize the depth of his own self-delusion—that we should finally grasp how imbalanced she is. If one accepts the premise that insanity is sanity displaced, there should be a driving, persuasive conviction to her actions, right up until the point where she hits the emotional wall. (In a weird way, Ms. Peters and Mr. Raines might well swap approaches: he needs to reveal more of his subtext; she needs to reveal less.)
The other performers, representing old-time Follies acts and personalities, are a fine group of seasoned veterans, among them Terri White (Stella “Who’s That Woman?” Deems), Jayne Houdyshell (Hattie “Broadway Baby” Walker), Mary Beth Peil (Solange “Ah, Paris!” LaFitte) and of course Elaine Page (Carlotta “I’m Still Here” Campion).
In all, if this production of Follies isn’t as brilliant as the material, it’s an accurate one with brilliant elements. And the clean delivery of the brilliant material is enough to carry the rest. And thus I’d urge you attend. Leave me to my memories; collect a few of your own…
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