Last week, I was lucky enough to score preview tickets to the revival of Follies, the ground-breaking musical with a book by James Goldman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that will open September 12. While I felt the show stumbled as a cohesive narrative, I do think it has so many outstanding elements it's still a can't-miss production.
The story is such a brilliant idea—a group of aging follies performers gets together for a reunion just as their old theater is about to transition from show palace to parking lot. The women have transitioned themselves, from young to older, from stars to nobodies or to bigger stars, from single to...it's complicated.
Bernadette Peters is Sally Durant Plummer, a 49-year-old housewife who married one of her stage-door suitors, sweet Buddy (Danny Burstein) in spite of having been in love with his best friend, dashing, ambitious Ben (Ron Raines). Her feelings have not faded along with their youth, which can not be said for the feelings between Ben and the showgirl he went on to marry, elegant Phyllis Rogers Stone (Jan Maxwell). Though Buddy and Phyllis are now a society power couple, their affection for each other has weakened to the point that it's spiked with unbridled contempt.
The other players are only around to deliver a few lines and, in some cases, belt one big song apiece, all done while ghostly chorus-girl figures in darkly beautiful '20s/'30s sequined costumes lounge about the set to conjure up a feeling of the ever-looming past.
Due to the setting (I hated the grade-school haunted house look of the stage)—an old theater—it's only natural that the story be told in a series of production numbers. This gives Follies the feel of a revue at times, and I think it made some of Sondheim's more ponderous numbers feel like even more of a drag than they already are. I couldn't wait for a couple of the gloomier tunes to trail off.
But while some of the spotlight numbers fall flat ("Ah, Paris!" by Mary Beth Peil is a lesser gem to begin with and her delivery lags; a ridiculously miscast Elaine Paige murders the show's best song, "I'm Still Here," making one long for that other Elaine's version—see below), several are flat out amazing. In particular, Jayne Houdyshell knocks it out of the park with her "Broadway Baby" and all the women—led by a dazzling Terri White—strike gold in the flawless rendering of "Who's That Woman," in which each of them arguably wins a dance-off with her younger self.
I was also moved by Rosalind Elias, whose operatic duet with "herself" (Leah Horowitz as Young Heidi) on "One More Kiss" was exquisite.
As for the stars, Bernadette Peters gives a beautifully emotional performance—remembering to act her part as well as singing it—topped off by her lovely "Losing My Mind" in the show's bizarre "Loveland" sequence, during which each of the four central characters has a razzle-dazzle show-stopper that cleverly communicates his or her mentality using Vaudevillian forms.
I thought Burstein and especially Maxwell were at least as impressive if not more; Burstein's take on "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" is equal parts hilarious and sad, and Maxwell's vamping through "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" elevates the song, which can't compete with some of the more familiar tunes in the show. Maxwell looks like Felicity Huffman, delivers bitchy lines like Eve Arden and possesses the stage a la Marlene Dietrich. I wouldn't be surprised if, out of everyone, she snatches a Tony for this.
I wasn't taken with Raines, whose number ends that sequence and the evening, nor does the show's too-easy ending make much emotional sense.
But there's no comparing something as adventurous and risky as this 40-year-old show with some of the commercial drivel currently befouling the boards on Broadway. There's plenty here to keep your mind and/or your heart busy between the off moments.
P.S. Not being a Sondheim expert (I was still thrilled to see him at our performance), I was surprised to hear a distinct similarity between the "Lord, lord, lord!" part of "Who's That Woman" and "More" from Dick Tracy.
P.P.S. I am getting better at spotting chorus boys—sexy John Carroll leapt out at me from among the crowd on stage.