New York City Theater
Marquis Theatre, Broadway
“Follies.” The name implies a splashy Broadway show with gorgeous girls in elaborate costumes descending stairways, with large-scale company numbers, with upbeat song-and-dance routines, with spectacular stage sets.
Wrong! This is Stephen Sondheim territory, and you can bet on a very different take—in fact, a darkened world. Specifically, the “Follies” story is all about disappointment, regrets, and the roads not taken. Looking to the past and longings for one’s youth is the dominant theme. This is not a Rodgers/Hammerstein feel-good show.
One cannot but reflect, however, on the Hammerstein connection. Sondheim, with a difficult childhood as the son of a divorced couple—New York, Jewish, West Side—had much darkness in his own early years. It’s as if centuries of dark Jewish history weighed in on his work. But he would go on to be mentored by Hammerstein, learning much from his surrogate father, and taking musical theater to a new level.
This “Follies,” now in a fine revival at the Marquis Theatre, opens on a dim stage, with wandering ghostly figures. It is an abandoned theater, soon to be torn down for a parking lot. But as the stage lightens and real people appear, an impresario, Dmitri Weismann (or Ziegfield?) announces that this is a reunion of his many past performers (stars, chorus girls and their mates). It is 1971. They are looking back some thirty years and earlier, when the “Follies” were in their heyday.
Like any reunion affair, there are joyous hugs and moments of happy recognition. But gradually, layer upon layer peels away. Two unhappily married couples come to the forefront. They are Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben—two former chorus girls and the stage-door Johnnies they married. They look back at the joyous times of their youth, when the boys waited at the stage door. What went wrong over the years? Why were particular choices made? For any one who looks back—and most of us approaching later years do just that—such issues are painfully relevant. And Sondheim, with tunes like “The Road You Didn’t Take,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Too Many Mornings,” really strikes home, as does the show’s book by James Goldman.
With Derek McLane’s down-played stage set, the production certainly captures the Sondheim mood. It is, if anything, anti-Broadway---or at least a different Broadway. And, in fact, far more suited to our own disaffected times than an “Oklahoma” or “South Pacific.” The production, under Eric Schaeffer’s direction (with choreography by Warren Carlyle and musical direction by James Moore), surely maintains that mood. Ghosts blend with real-life characters, even as the past blends with the present.
As to the performers, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein are terrific, with Ron Raines not far behind. Maxwell and Burstein create achingly vulnerable characters. And others in the cast add considerable substance—Jane Houdyshell in all-too-brief appearances, and Elaine Paige belting out “I’m Still Here.” Only Bernadette Peters, the much-touted lead, is a disappointment. Is Peters is just too attractive and glamorous, despite efforts to dress her in a frumpy dress and wig? In any event, she seems to disappear into the woodwork, hardly meeting the challenge of lead character. It is only when she comes on stage, clad in a slinky black gown to sing “Losing My Mind,” that the best of Peters comes through.
All told, this “Follies” revival will pierce your heart—particularly if you can look back, wondering if you made the right life choices.
Sept. 19, 2011