While the 182 previews, numerous postponements and drastic changes in the creative team experienced by the current tenant of the Foxwoods Theatre might serve as some indication that musical theatre ain't easy, the real proof of the art form's difficulty can now be observed in its rapturously imperfect glory at the Marquis.
Forty years ago three geniuses (and one respectably accomplished playwright) envisioned a musical so ambitious and sophisticated that not even they could make it completely work; their creation disinteresting as many as it enraptured, winning 7 Tony Awards but losing the prize for Best Musical and running a respectable, but disappointing, 522 performances. With every major revival, Follies has been tweaked a bit - sometimes a bit more - in an attempt to make the whole come off as smartly, intricately and downright brilliantly as the individual values of its score (Stephen Sondheim), book (James Goldman) and concept (originally melded together by co-directors Harold Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett).
I won't say director Eric Schaeffer has figured it out with his terrifically acted Kennedy Center transfer, but I'll also say that any negative comment made in this review should not be misinterpreted as an attempt to discourage anyone from immediately putting this show at the top of their must-see list. Moments of Follies that don't quite work are nevertheless more worthy of a theatre-goer's attention than the most perfected moments of any other musical offering currently on the Broadway boards. Parents of ten-year-olds who have been begging to be taken to Mary Poppins or The Lion King should bring them to Follies instead. They won't understand a bit of it, but their lives will have been enriched forever for having heard the words and the music.
The year is 1971 and the theatre where the Ziegfeld-like impresario Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin) once staged a new edition of his Follies every year between the two great wars is being torn down to put up a parking lot. It's the eve of destruction and he's throwing a reunion party at the crumbling old playhouse for all who at one time or another performed in his employ.
The plot revolves around two couples, former chorines Sally and Phyllis (Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell) and their respective husbands, former stage-door Johnnies Buddy and Ben (Danny Burstein and Ron Raines). Though the four used to double-date in the old days, both of the women were stuck on the ambitious Ben, who would eventually become world famous in business, politics and philanthropy. The self-absorbed Ben made promises to Sally and perhaps even loved her, but instead married Phyllis, who was willing to reinvent herself as the kind of educated, cultured partner deemed appropriate for a man of his upward mobility. Thirty years later, Phyllis has become the stone-hearted cynic from decades of Ben's inattentiveness. Sally rebounded to marry Buddy, who spends much of his time on the road as a salesman, but has always pined for the one who got away. And while Buddy claims to have never stopped loving his wife, her unaffectionate manner leads him to a long-term affair with a younger woman who shows him constant devotion. While Phyllis and Buddy eventually notice how Ben and Sally are tentatively kindling old flames, ghostlike figures of their younger selves (Christian Delcroix, Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott and Nick Verina) play out their happiest and most disturbing memories.
Meanwhile, Follies is loaded with supporting roles - each of which is also represented by a ghostlike memory - who speak very few lines but are featured in pastiche numbers that recall their on-stage glories. Don Correia and Susan Watson are adorably spry singing and dancing their flirtatious novelty number, "Rain on the Roof," Mary Beth Peil luxuriates in continental elegance with "Ah! Paris" and Jayne Houdyshell joyously belts out "Broadway Baby" with an unabashedly sunny smile. 82-year-old opera star Rosalind Elias makes a distinguished Broadway debut with the operetta dramatics of "One More Kiss" (a duet with the enchantingly-voiced Leah Horowitz as her younger self), which is presented as a commentary on the main plot and Terri White's powerful, smoky vocals, self-effacing humor and spirited tap dancing leads the ladies in "Who's That Woman?," a number that has the confused older women trying to remember their parts as the youthful dancers reflect their past expertise.
In these selections Follies contrasts the carefree elegance of traditional musical theatre entertainment with the merciless realities of the lives of those who embodied that optimistic spirit eight times a week. On top of that, there's Elaine Paige as the glamorous television star who viciously knocks out the survival anthem "I'm Still Here" as a declaration that, unlike the lead quartet, she has gotten to where she is by living her life without compromising.
And this is where the difficulty in Follies lies. Though the evening builds to a surreal climax where Buddy, Ben, Sally and Phyllis find themselves starring in their own musical revue performing numbers that express their dissatisfaction with life in musical theatre form, up until that point the central characters are overshadowed by the positive energy of the secondary characters. After the cheery exposition of "Waiting For The Girls Upstairs," the plot-related songs are all about life's disappointments. Outside of the musical, "In Buddy's Eyes" is a beautiful expression of loving the way someone else sees you, but in context, especially with Peters' heartbreakingly fragile rendering, it has Sally either trying to convince herself or convince Ben that she is indeed happy. "Could I Leave You?" is a witty little kiss-off that builds to a triumph of independence, and Maxwell ferociously elevates the moment into something raw and ugly.
Blame for the mixed reaction to Follies is often laid on Goldman's book and past solutions have been to lighten it up or whittle it down. But Peters, Maxwell, Raines and especially Burstein are doings such top-level work here - Broadway currently offers no better acting on its musical stages - that the condensed book in use doesn't seem sufficient. Textures are lacking and by the second act their scenes start hinting at contrivance.
Nevertheless, Peters is giving a career-highlight performance. The title of her final torcher, "Losing My Mind," is being taken as more than a figure of speech as the actress guides Sally into a full-blown mental breakdown. There are admittedly some rough edges to her vocals. In her last Broadway outing, A Little Night Music, she played a part written for a non-singer and this is a far more taxing role, but her lyric interpretation is, as always, intelligent and perfectly phrased and she still has the control to carry those long final notes for their full values.
Jan Maxwell, one of the most skilled and versatile of New York's frequent stage actors, is at a bit of a disadvantage here because Phyllis, usually regarded as musical's starring role, has some of her juicier lines cut as the production puts Peters in a brighter spotlight. But she finds icy humor in her character's passive aggression, sings with strong pipes and dances with leggy slinkiness.
Ron Raines' elegant leading man baritone fits Ben's impeccable public image, one that he effectively crumbles as the evening progresses.
After a decade of small roles and understudy assignments, the last five years have seen Danny Burstein emerge as a dependable and entertaining musical theatre performer, but nothing he's done previously on Broadway has given him the chance to show the depth and forcefulness he displays as Buddy. This is a uniquely musical theatre acting performance, as he lays on the happy-go-lucky nice-guy charm on the outside, but expresses confused raw emotion through Warren Carlyle's choreography. In the second act he unleashes potentially violent anger at Sally, which bubbles to the top during his vaudevillian antics for Buddy's "God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues."
If Eric Schaeffer's staging and Carlyle's choreography lack the kind of inventiveness evident in the text, there is still a great deal of excitement generated by the 28-piece orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick's glorious orchestrations. There may never be a perfect production of Follies, but this one has the potential to be something Follies never was; a crowd-pleaser. And having crowds pleased by an ambitious, complex, adult piece of musical theatre, performed by a company loaded with fully seasoned New York stage actors, would be one of the best things to happen to Broadway in a long time.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters; Center: Jan Maxwell and Company; Bottom: Jennifer Foote, Danny Burstein and Kiira Schmidt.
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"You start acting in spite of your neuroses, not because of them."
-- Frank Langella
The grosses are out for the week ending 9/18/2011 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (19.8%), ROCK OF AGES (18.6%), MAN AND BOY (18.0%), SISTER ACT (14.6%), JERSEY BOYS (13.6%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (12.5%), WICKED (11.5%), MEMPHIS (10.2%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (9.8%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (9.4%), ANYTHING GOES (7.6%), FOLLIES (7.6%), THE LION KING (7.4%), MAMMA MIA! (7.2%), MARY POPPINS (6.6%), CHICAGO (6.1%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (5.9%), WAR HORSE (2.9%),
Down for the week was: SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-3.3%),