Book by James Goldman
Music by Stephen Sondheim
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Location: Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York, NY
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Lighting: Natasha Katz
Costumes: Gregg Barnes
Sound Design: Kai Harada
Starring Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Elaine Paige, Bernadette Peters, Ron Raines, Don Correia, Christian Delcroix
Just When Were the Good Old Days?
The Broadway revival is a bittersweet proposition, mixing fondness and scorn, because how can the latest version ever live up to its past? We hang on to previous performances from our favorite stars and inevitably compare the previous production with the current one, which rarely exceeds our expectations, because isn’t the new incarnation also competing with that elusive variable, simply put, time gone past? When we were younger, thinner and full of hope? The revival just reminds us that we will never be that version of ourselves, and in that realization there is always a twinge of loss. For Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 Follies, however, the Broadway revival creates the perfect situation to reflect on the musical’s themes of regret, nostalgia, and getting older. With a book by James Goldman and music and lyrics by Sondheim, song and story intertwine to reveal that a show-stopping musical number is the only way these characters can express who they really are.
As the audience finds the way to their seats, dark and dingy pieces of black fabric droop about a curtainless stage, covering most of the walls in the auditorium. It’s clear that we are in a space in decay. The columns of the proscenium arch look like they are crumbling and the gold paint seems to flake before our eyes. Derek McLane, scenic designer, brings you into the world of the play even before it begins. As the lights fade to black, those ripped pieces of drab fabric transform into translucent shrouds casting shadows about a stage that grows taller before our eyes. A haunting glow reveals a bare stage of exposed brick that reaches three stories high with catwalks clinging to the side. A spectral figure emerges from the wings, a showgirl from a bygone era, a surreal vision in sequins who leads us into the dark remembrance that is Follies.
It is a reunion party for the legendary Weismann Follies and all of the old players arrive one by one at the theater for one last laugh before the building is made into a parking lot. Each of the characters enter in a parade of talent with Bernadette Peters, who plays Sally Plummer, leading the charge. She arrives, tense but smiling, followed by such notables as Elaine Paige who plays Carlotta, Jan Maxwell, who plays Phyllis Stone, Danny Burstein, as Sally’s husband, Buddy Plummer, and Jayne Houdyshell as Hattie Walker, Follies Girl from 1935. And the list goes on. There are too many to mention here, but the succession of applause inducing entrances is dizzying to say the least and builds on the expectation of dazzling musical theater performances to come. This production from the Kennedy Center directed by Eric Schaeffer, for the most part, does not disappoint.
Once all of the guests have arrived, the women delight in performing some of the old numbers and for a spell the ghosts are kept at bay. Houdyshell belts out the show’s most memorable melody, “Broadway Baby,” reminiscent of depression era musicals, now iconic in its own right. Terri White leads the ladies in the triumphant tap number “Who’s That Woman,” as their past selves shadow them in a joyous celebration of song and dance. As White’s enormous voice fills the auditorium and we see the ladies next to their younger dopplegangers, growing older only means getting better, and understanding more. The fresh-faced versions appear homogenous in their beauty, while the Follies ladies in current form have an intensity of presence that only comes with experience. But this emotional highpoint does not last.
The play then turns its attention to the troubles of two couples Sally (Peters) and Buddy Plummer (Burstein) and Phyllis (Maxwell) and Ben Stone (Ron Raines). They were all friends once, and now, along with the young versions of themselves, converge on the decrepit theater to pursue matters of unfinished business. Sally is married to Buddy but loves Ben, Ben is successful but unfulfilled, Buddy is weary of being unrequited, and Phyllis is alone with her expensive ($60,000!) Georgian silver. The ghosts rush in and the two couples leave off where they were 30 years ago, eschewing the somewhat accepted notion that people change.
The play would have you believe two contradictory things at once. On the one hand, love cools and transforms into tolerance (i.e. the married couples) and on the other, the love you feel as a nineteen-year-old girl never fades (i.e. Sally). It is hard to believe full heartedly in both and as the musical tunnels deeper into the troubles of these overlapping love triangles, the story starts to wear a little thin. Were it not for the supreme talent of Peters who somehow can smile and sing a sweet song about her husband’s devotion (“In Buddy’s Eyes”) while silently breaking your heart, Follies might veer into the melodramatic.
In Act Two, McLane’s stage blossoms into a full-fledged reincarnation of a “Follies” set of yesterday, complete with a singing ensemble gliding in and out of the wings. At last, we glimpse the only everlasting love that truly can be counted on in this production, the love for the American Musical. Each of the four bedraggled spouses emerge from behind a curtain of flowers sparkling and shining to pour out their marital strife in various numbers, bringing forth to mind the illusion and contrivance that most relationships demand if they are to survive.
The force of Sondheim’s lyrics cut through the banality of the familiar with an electric jolt. Despite the fact that the characters are re-hashing sentiments already fully explained to us in previous scenes, the incisive lyrics render the well-known song styles strange and beautiful. Suddenly this bawdy show business past, with its feathers and top hats, was made into something else before my eyes, something worth remembering. As Peters sings “Losing my Mind” in a floor length velvet gown her performance offers us a glimpse into what life so rarely offers us: emotional clarity. Follies shows us that the revival, like the theater itself, will continue to be a place to visit and revisit in search of what we almost forgot.