How does one review a play that has so much mythos attached to its original production? Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 Follies has so much expectation thrust upon any attempt to mount it that The Thespian feels that no matter what she writes, those who have seen numerous versions or the "Holy Grail", the 1971 original Broadway production, will be sure to inform her that she missed a nuance, or doesn't get it. Perhaps it is useful that this is the very first production of Follies that The Thespian has seen, although she is extremely familiar with the musical score and the basics of the story. The solution? Just dive into it and take the consequences.
Follies is a musical about longing, regret, betrayal, fear, and, most importantly a wistful nostalgia for the past. Set in the decaying Weismann Theater, the showgirls of Weismann's Follies reunite for one last time the night before the theater is scheduled to be demolished to become a parking lot. Haunted throughout the evening by the ghosts of the past, whether the shadowy figures of the showgirls they used to be, or by the naivete of their younger selves, they relive their glory days. Into this come two couples, Sally and Buddy and Ben and Phyllis, once best of friends, now deep into troubled marriages. At the end of the evening will their marriages be demolished as well?
Follies does not have a strong narrative structure, the true story, that of the two central couples, is constantly interrupted by performances by the other women (and a few of the men). Throughout this the younger ghostly versions of the girls mostly slink in the background, occasionally joining in some of the numbers. This is not an easy musical to appreciate. The music is stunning, some of director Eric Schaeffer's staging is superb and other directoral choices maddening. Gregg Barne's costumes are beautiful, especially the elaborate chorus girl costumes. The set design by Derek McLane evokes the neglected theaters of the late 1960's and 70's. The casting contains some true gems and others that are just not quite right for the roles. This production of Follies is inconsistent, yet contains utter flashes of brilliance showing that it is on the right track to do this difficult show justice.
There are several standout performances amongst the Weismann "girls" (and guys). What is delightful about Follies is that this musical rightly gives the seasoned performers the chance to prove that they still have that It factor. Michael Hayes has a clear tenor and is reminiscent of Dick Powell in his rendition of "Beautiful Girls." Rosalind Elias captures the featured operetta star perfectly and sings with a clear and crisp tone "One More Kiss" in a poignant duet with her younger counterpart, Leah Horowitz. As the hoofers, The Whitmans, Susan Watson and Terrance Currier, tear up the floorboards, clearly loving and delighting in performing together. The amazing Terri White stops the show with "Who's That Woman?" a pull out the stops number that tasks all of the younger and older Weismann girls to dance their hearts out.
Solange as Regine does not quite feel at ease in the role, yet she has a presence that makes you accept that what you are seeing is what you are going to get. Linda Lavin as Hattie is brassy singing "Broadway Baby" but the number seems to be lacking the vaudeville punch. Elaine Page as Carlotta is clearly enjoying herself. "I'm Still Here" is an anthem that can be performed with cynicism, but Ms. Page takes it as a badge of honor enjoying the devoted attention of her chorus boys.
As our leading couples and their younger counterparts we are given both brilliant performances and others that seem to ring false. The younger ones, Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott, Christian Delcroix and Nick Verina have quality and heart and do make the audience believe in the hopes and dreams and the origins of the fatal problems in both marriages. As for our star leads...
Ron Raines as Ben makes it difficult to see what either Sally or Phyllis desire in him. His Ben is brusk and missing the charm that would make the audience believe that Sally's willingness to leave her husband for him is not simply delusional. Jan Maxwell's Phyllis is a cool drink of water. Her regrets of the choices she made are clear as a bell. Ms. Maxwell's scathing "Could I Leave You?" is emotional singing at its best. Mr. Sondheim is frequently noted as an actor's composer and Ms. Maxwell is the embodiment of that.
Bernadette Peters as Sally has been referred to by other reviews as too glamorous for the role. Yet, when Sally mentions that she's fat or old, any woman can see that as a universal answer for all women who are uncomfortable with physical praise. It would be interesting to see another actress not as spectacularly gorgeous as Ms. Peters tackle this role, but that is not to diminish Ms. Peters talents. Her delivery of "Losing My Mind" is heartbreaking and her denial of the the reality of the fantasy she has created for herself and Ben is equally poignant. The only criticism The Thespian heard was that audience members in the balcony had difficulty hearing Ms. Peters, which is the fault of the sound technician.
Danny Burnstein as the steadfast, yet unfaithful, Buddy gives a complex and devastating performance. "The Right Girl" is emotionally satisfying and "Buddy's Blues" the perfect embodiment of pain and panache in the midst of the psychological Loveland sequence.
It is the Loveland sequence that is the most revelatory and satisfactory part of Mr. Schaffer's direction. The most maddening is the inconsistency of the use of the ghostly chorus girls. At times they are perfect shadows, at others distractions at moments when they should not take focus. Conceptually this Follies has its moments, but the distractions at others take away from this becoming a grand evening of theater.
Follies music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman will be performed in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through June 19, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.kennedy-center.org.