Monday, September 12, 2011

Follies: A Review

I was a lucky SOB and scored a preview performance ticket to the current revival of Follies that is playing at the Marriot Marquis Theater on Broadway.

For those of you who don't know, Follies is one of those shows within the musical theater world that is so fraught with expectation, dogma and preconceived notions that mounting a production is not something for the faint of heart. I did not see the original and legendary production from the 70's, which many hold up as the holy grail of versions, but I saw the much reviled Roundabout revival and enjoyed it. Obviously I'm not a purist so bear that in mind.

The current revival stars Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell as Sally and Phyllis, two former Follies showgirls and best friends whose lives took very different turns. Opposite them are Danny Burstein and Ron Raines as their husbands, Buddy and Ben, who were also their young beaus all those years ago and also former best friends. They meet up at a party thrown by the old Follies impresario, Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin) on the eve that the old theater that used to house their show is about to be torn down. Also in attendance at the party, held at the now-rundown theater, are a bevy of aging chorus girls, singers and dancers who reminisce about the old days.

Swirling around these older folks are the memories, or ghosts, of their younger selves who observe and sometimes re-enact events from the past, be they song and dance numbers or moments of betrayal. Old romances are rekindled and old wounds are laid bare.

Follies is a challenging show because it places at its core four people who are not particularly likeable. They are jaded and bitter and dissatisfied. The supreme challenge is to make the audience care about these people without diluting their essential unhappiness. The other trick is not to have the various side characters, who are much more entertaining, pull the focus from the central, if depressing, central plot. Overall I will say that the production succeeds.

Bernadette Peters is the marquee name here and she does a beautiful job of muting her star power enough to make Sally the wan and depressing person she should be while providing enough radiance to show glimmers of the girl that once was. Her flashes of false bravado don't conceal the atrophied heart she lugs around with her and her rendition of "Losing My Mind" is exquisitely controlled and heartbreaking.

But the real powerhouse of the production is Jan Maxwell, a Broadway veteran who has finally been getting her due over the past few years. Her Phyllis is brutally cool, while concealing a fiery heart that longs to be appreciated, and her lacerating "Leave You" left both her and the audience shaking. She is wonderfully matched by Ron Raines as her profoundly unhappy husband Ben. His gorgeous tenor was well served in his signature numbers including a poignant "The Road You Didn't Take."

Rounding out the foursome is Danny Burstein as Buddy, Sally's long-suffering if deeply flawed husband. Burstein invests Buddy with a quirky charm that is offset by a barely muted fury at the compromises he has made in his life. He does a smashing job with "Buddy's Blues" and has a great chemistry with Peters.

Outstanding performances are also provided by Terri White as a brassy and boisterous Stella Deems ("Whose That Woman"), Jayne Houdyshell as a dowdy but loveable Hattie Walker ("Broadway Baby"), and the diva-licious Elaine Page as Carlotta Campion, whose tackling of the iconic "I'm Still Here" was gorgeous and harrowing.

I was more than satisfied by the production values, which are often the sticking point for many with long memories. This may not have been as lavish as the original, but I was quite pleased by the costumes by Gregg Barnes, including the towering outfits of the shadow chorus girls. The moody and atmospheric lighting by Natasha Katz is also gorgeous and Derek McLane's set design extended out into the house, where drapings of shroud-like fabric add a sense of neglect and abandonment.

Last but not least, major kudos go to director Eric Schaeffer who has managed to tame a contentious beast of a theater piece and turn its disparate elements into a moving and coherent whole. He keeps the pacing brisk when it needs to be while allowing for the poignant and elegiac moments to be savored. The large cast comes together well as a whole and aside from a few stylistic quibbles here and there, I was captivated. This is a lovely and lovingly crafted production that I definitely recommend.

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