Someone is always trying to bring Follies back to Broadway, or at least it seems. There was talk of moving the 1998 production at Papermill Playhouse to NYC, but apparently backstage politics put the kibosh on that move. The well-received 2007 Encores production also had people calling for a Broadway transfer, but that never materialized either.
So more than a few folks (including me) were at first skeptical at talk of bringing the recent Kennedy Center production to Broadway, but, lo and behold, this time it actually happened. And the results, while somewhat mixed, are thrilling enough to warrant a huzzah or two from the Sondheim faithful (including me).
The first sight that theatergoers encounter when entering the Marquis Theatre for the current production of Follies are the various gray tarps covering all of the walls in the auditorium. A number of people have quipped that the notoriously sterile Marquis has never looked better, but the tarps create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. Follies does, after all, take place in a decrepit theater that is about to be torn down.
Thankfully, director Eric Schaeffer has made no apparent attempt to reinvent Follies, focusing instead on bringing out what makes the show compelling: Stephen Sondheim's powerhouse of a score and the two central - though overlapping - relationships between Buddy and Sally Plummer, and Ben and Phyllis Stone. The more I hear Sondheim's score for Follies, the more enamored I become of its complexity, its leitmotivs, and the way the songs are paced to alternate showstopping uptempo numbers with heartbreaking introspective ballads.
There's really not a bad number in the mix, making it all the more perplexing that Sondheim saw fit to augment the score with a handful of fascinating, but ultimately unnecessary new numbers for the 1987 West End production. (Including "Country House," which sounds more like 1980s Sondheim than 1970s Sondheim; the delightful "Ah, But Underneath," which has become a standard of sorts with cabaret singers and drag queens everywhere; and the clearly autobiographical "Make the Most of Your Music," which is completely inappropriate for Ben, who doesn't speak in musical metaphors.)
The show is already front-loaded with concept (the ghosts of the characters haunt their modern-day selves throughout the show), so Schaeffer lets the big picture take care itself and instead concentrates on bringing out the complex emotional content with small but evocative directorial touches. Early in the show, Phyllis reaches for Ben just as Ben is walking away to put down his drink. At the end, as Sally and Buddy exit, Buddy moves to put his arm around the small of Sally's back, but pulls it back at the last second. Both moments are easy to miss, but are nonetheless indicative of Schaeffer's precision.
I've seen Follies many times, but I don't remember ever sensing the subtext as keenly as I did while watching this production. This is especially true during "The Road You Didn't Take" and "In Buddy's Eyes," which perhaps is not coincidental, since both songs feature Ben and Sally, and both emphasize Sally's as yet unspoken agenda.
If there's any justice, come Tony time, Jan Maxwell (Phyllis) and Danny Burstein (Buddy) will finally receive their long-overdue recognition. Maxwell and Burstein are always reliable, frequently inspired performers, and it's a pleasure to see them finally getting their due with this production. Maxwell brings both a stately elegance and a brittle edge to Phyllis, and her "Could I Leave You" was a national treasure. Maxwell spat out the words and raged across the stage during the number, and in the hands of someone of lesser talent, this might not have worked, but Maxwell is self-assured and laser sharp even when her character is on the verge of losing it.
Maxwell even makes some of James Goldman's clunky dialog work better than it deserves to. The script for the current production takes the 2001 version and adds in a few lines cherry-picked from the original. At the very end of the show, Phyllis turns to Ben and says, "Hope doesn't grow on trees; we make our own and I'm here to tell you it's the hardest thing we'll ever do." Oy. Who thought that was a line worth reinstating? It sounds like something from a bad, forgotten World War II Hollywood melodrama. But, again, Maxwell sold it, which is a testament to her inestimable talent.
Burstein is no less a wonder as Buddy. Schaeffer shrewdly places Buddy on the scene to witness much of Sally's attempts to rekindle her long-imagined romance with Ben, and Burstein's heartrending facial expressions vividly convey the tortured feelings of this man caught between the woman he loves and the woman who loves him (who are not necessarily one and the same).
The one misstep in Burstein's performance was actually not his doing. Warren Carlyle's choreography for "The Right Girl" seemed woefully out of place. Most of the dances, and in fact the songs, in Follies are diegetic: the characters are actually dancing in the context of the show, as Follies girls or performers, as opposed to dancing as their characters. It's not clear why Buddy would be the only character in the show to dance in a non-diegetic fashion, to break into a dance monologue, as it were. Yes, there's dance music in the song, or at least an orchestral section, but this could have been used for evocative staging as opposed to a jazz speciality.
As for the other two stars, Bernadette Peters has been getting mixed reviews as Sally, and I would be inclined to agree. There were times when Peters was a suitably frumpy housewife, but there were other times when it was just too much of a feat for her to pull it off. Her singing was mostly strong, although her breath control has lost some of its power over the years. Her final moment, however, was positively stunning. Sally stands staring out at the audience, while Buddy waits patiently to take her home. The sense of despair on Bernadette's face will remain for me an iconic moment, full of gravity, pathos, and eventually resignation. Simply breathtaking.
As Ben, Ron Raines has a rich and characterful voice, but some of his acting seemed a bit summer stock-y. He started off promising: his "The Road You Didn't Take" was remarkably powerful, yet full of restraint. But he seemed to abandon this restraint as the performance progressed. Phyllis makes numerous references to Ben's impassive nature, and that one of her key frustrations is that she finds him difficult to read. Whereas Raines wasn't difficult to read at all. In fact, he displayed his heart quite openly, on both of his sleeves, as it were.
The supporting cast was, for the most part, top-notch, from the electric Terry White to the joyous Jayne Houdyshell. A genuine standout for me was Rosalind Elias, making her Broadway debut at the age of 82 as Heidi. Heidi is meant to be an aging operetta star, and her song "One More Kiss" typically reeks of poignancy when Young Heidi enters and reminds both Heidi and the audience of the beautiful voice that this woman once had. With Elias, both Heidi and the number maintain that poignancy, but Elias still possesses a vocal control and richness of tone that women half her age would kill for. A song that often becomes a throwaway number became, for me, a thrilling centerpiece.
My one major complaint with this production lies in the "performance" of Elaine Paige. Yes, Paige, at least to some people, is a star. And, yes, she retains the great vocal power that made her a star. But Paige uses "I'm Still Here" not so much to play a character as to make a personal statement, and it left me ice cold. Paige plays the introductory scene and the song for laughs, to a distracting and deleterious extent. Her vocal histrionics produced a flat and characterless wall of sound, and her scooping was nothing less than egregious, with the musicality of Sondheim's masterful song lost amid the shtick and gimmickry. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Paige's performance ran the gamut from Y to Z.
Follies runs through the holiday season to the end of the year, at which point a number of the stars have concert engagements, making an extension rather unlikely. Those who have never seen the show staged, or those who are still smarting from the deeply disappointing 2001 revival, will clearly want to take this production in. In fact, anyone seeking to experience a classic show, sensitively staged, and featuring some of the best performers Broadway currently has to offer are well advised to head post haste to the Marquis.
Of course, no sooner did I post this review than Playbill.com reported that Follies will indeed be extending its run by three weeks. That's what I get for reckless prognostication.