The tears don’t swell, but the music does, in the latest ‘Follies’
James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's 1971 blockbuster musical Follies follows a group of performers who have gathered to "glamorize the old days." So it's inevitable that any production of Follies is compared to those that came before.
Broadway's beloved Bernadette Peters, playing a former chorus girl named Sally, must compete not with other leading women on stage right now but rather is measured against all the other Sallys in recent memory. Jan Maxwell, as her former roommate Phyllis, must compete against standouts like Donna Murphy (she played the role in 2007) and Lee Remick (1985). Thanks to the wonders of the internet, fans are also comparing her performance to that of the incomparable Alexis Smith, who played the part in the original production back in 1971.
And pity poor Jayne Houdyshell, who belts out what is probably the show's most famous tune, "Broadway Baby." Along with ghosts of Hatties past—Ethel Shutta, Elaine Stritch, Betty Garrett, Kaye Ballard and Mimi Hines—she must stand up against Linda Lavin, whom she replaced in the role. (Lavin played Hattie just four months ago when this current production opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.)
On second thought, don't pity Houdyshell. Clad in orthopedic shoes, she proves that all she requires is "a tube of greasepaint and a follow spot" to sell her big number. Houdyshell brings a sly sense of humor and a surprisingly powerful set of pipes to "Broadway Baby," and she'll almost certainly be among the Hatties against which all future ones are compared.
Houdyshell is in good company. Of the other members of the unusually large supporting cast, Susan Watson and Don Correia are charming as the hoofers in "Rain on the Roof," and Mary Beth Peil projects an unmistakable joie de vivre as the chanteuse who delivers "Ah, Paris!" The crowd-pleasing "Who's That Woman?" is well served with the big-voiced Terri White singing the lead (although the number is undercut by Warren Carlyle's unfocused choreography).
Reunions always bring a flood of emotions, starting with the joy of being reunited with old acquaintances. That's certainly the case for the characters in Follies, who have gathered after 30 years to celebrate one more time before their theater is torn down. Among them are Sally and Phyllis, who, for different reasons, are anxious to relive a time in their lives when "everything was possible."
It's a wistful evening for many of these old girls, who have one final chance to "stumble through a song or two." For Sally and Phyllis, along with their respective husbands Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines), it's an opportunity to take a hard look at what the four of them really were like, and what they have become. None of them like what is revealed, especially when the ghosts of their younger selves show up and demand some answers.
Director Eric Schaefer doesn't dwell too much on introspection. His version of Follies hurries from one big number to the next, daring you not to be dazzled by the full-throated belting and the fancy footwork. And these numbers, loving pastiches of songs that might have been heard during Broadway’s Golden Age, often leave you breathless.
But in between these showstoppers are smaller-scale numbers for the four leads. Schaefer, so enamored of the show’s razzmatazz, seems less adept at these quieter moments. Songs that should give us insight into the characters, like Ben's glib “The Road You Didn’t Take” and Sally's disingenuous “In Buddy’s Eyes,” feel lifeless in comparison.
I've seen Follies a dozen times, and this is the first time I didn't get choked up. Where in the show I feel that catch in my throat depends on the production, but it's almost always by “In Buddy’s Eyes.” Sally, who for decades has secretly pined away for cultured Ben while regretting her marriage to unrefined Buddy, sings about how her husband makes her feel like she's "still the princess, still the prize." It's a lie, of course, but she doesn't want Ben to know.
This subtle song can be devastating, but Peters overplays it. Tears streaming down her face—she turns on the waterworks even more than usual in this production—Peters slows down the tempo and draws out the phrases so much that what should be subtext is right there on the surface.
Peters, who shares above-the-title billing with her three co-stars but is by far the show’s biggest name and biggest draw, is not always satisfying as Sally. The character should be heartbreaking when it's clear she's been lying to everyone, including herself. But while Peters has improved immeasurably since the D.C. production, she doesn't seem to have the patience to slowly reveal her character's inner sadness. It's already there when she makes her first entrance, so Sally has nowhere to go. "Losing My Mind," her torch song that comes late in the second act, doesn't tell us anything we don't already know.
But the rest of the leads are strong. Maxwell (The Royal Family, Lend Me a Tenor) proves to be impressive as the sardonic Phyllis. In "Could I Leave You?" she reveals an emotional rawness that brings her character into sharp focus. And although the choreography leaves Maxwell winded, her version of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" sounds great with her powerhouse voice. Her Phyllis becomes the show's emotional center, quite a feat when the character is so often portrayed as cold and distant.
As Buddy, Burstein (Luther Billis in the recent South Pacific) reminds us once again what an outstanding song-and-dance man he is with "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues." Raines, in the pivotal role of Ben, has a strong baritone voice that compensates for his slightly wooden acting style. His version of "Too Many Mornings" is one of the fullest I've heard in a long time.
Rosalind Elias brings a wistfulness to the Viennese-style waltz "One Last Kiss," which she sings as the ghost of her younger self, played by Leah Horowitz, warbles in the upper register. The show's rousing "I'm Still Here" is given to Elaine Paige, better known in London than New York. This song about triumphing over life's adversities is tough to pull off, but Paige drops her party-girl persona enough to give us a glimpse at the pain underneath.
Paige gets the star treatment from costume designer Gregg Barnes, who rethought a billowy blue taffeta dress that made her look short and squat in D.C. Peters was dressed in a slinky red cocktail dress in the Kennedy Center production, even though Sally is supposed to be a suburban housewife, so her less-sophisticated pink replacement is an improvement. Few of the clothes, at least for the "modern" part of the show set in 1971, seem quite right for the period. But the black-and-white gowns for the ghosts of the follies girls are every bit as glamorous as they should be.
I'm usually a big fan of Derek McLane's sets, especially when he can let his imagination run wild, as with the toppling topiaries in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. His work here is surprisingly literal, down to the realistic piles of rubble at the back of the stage. His feathery drops for the second-act "Loveland" sequence initially get a round of applause, but afterward they don't budge for seven songs. It feels like a budgetary solution, rather than a creative one.
One thing that clearly didn't fall to the budget ax is the orchestra, which hasn't been drastically scaled back as with recent productions of Sondheim's A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George. Under conductor James Moore it sounds rich and full—and why shouldn't it, with five violins, two violas and two cellos playing Sondheim's soaring melodies? And for once the original score is intact, except for a dance number called "Bolero d'Amour" (a lovely moment in the show, but dispensable).
It's hard to imagine a production of Follies that sounds better than this one, and the visuals, especially in the second act, are ravishing. It lacks the emotional punch of previous productions, but this Follies still often manages to be thrilling.
Follies is playing at the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway. Tickets are $47 to $137 and are available at 877-250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com.