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Those roars you hear are not left over from the Super Bowl. Rather, they’re the full-throated cheers audiences are bestowing on star turns in the “Encores!” series’ version of “Follies.” The landmark musical – a cult hit since its original run in 1971 -- is being given still another revival which, like so many other incarnations, has its pluses and minuses.

Chief among its pluses is the brilliant cast, starting with the incomparable Donna Murphy and down to the energetic ensemble. It’s a roster of star names the likes of which would be impossible to recreate in anything but a limited run.

We need these shows, if only to remind us what an adult musical is like, and “Encores” should be enshrined for reviving it (and so many others). While James Goldman’s libretto has undergone revisions over the years, what remains sublime is the score by our reigning theater genius, Stephen Sondheim.

The surface story of two marriages on the rocks is a metaphor for the decline of the American Dream and the replacement of art by industry, of glitter by grit. Set in a decaying theater about to be torn down for a parking lot, “Follies” reveals the broken heart of unfulfilled promises, of lives run over by time, of the superficiality that comes with throwing out the old in favor of the often meretricious new. Yet certain values survive.

Sally, married to Buddy, still loves Ben who, in turn, is married to Phyllis. Ben and Phyllis lead glamorous lives, Buddy and Sally are mired in lives of quiet desperation. All are unhappy; all except Sally are philanderers.

They come to a farewell reunion of the men and women who starred in Weismann (read: Ziegfeld) revues. Meeting long-lost fellow performers after so many years, all pore over memories and even re-create their moments in the long-ago spotlight. This proves to be a bittersweet event, since they also dredge up the ghosts of their youth – literally.

The startling juxtaposition of their present selves with their past ones who sing and dance along with them, gave “Follies” its undeniable jolt. Once hailed as a Proustian musical, that element has been somewhat shortchanged in this necessarily stripped-down concert revival. Missing is the mysteriousness that especially underpins the frivolity of one of the central numbers, “Who’s That Woman?” with its nostalgic lyrics (“The vision’s getting blurred / Isn’t that absurd?”).

Maybe we can’t completely get away from the idea that the broken marriage story is trite, yet director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw avoids the pitfalls of excessive gloom that marred the most recent Broadway revival without slighting the show’s ruefulness. Of course, he has the magnificent, tuneful Sondheim score to work with. The composer/lyricist mixes plot songs with period pastiches that both evoke and ironically comment on an earlier, seemingly more innocent time.

And this cast, for the most part, even finds novel interpretations. Donna Murphy is a powerhouse, a knockout, whether zinging wry comments on love or letting out all the stops in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” her schizophrenic number about which kind of unhappy woman she wants to be – lacy Lucy or racy Jessie.

Victoria Clark, fresh from her Tony winning performance in “The Light in the Piazza” is a bright, eager Sally. Acting as well as singing her songs, she makes “In Buddy’s Eyes” a model of wistfulness and “Losing My Mind” into an angry, rather than a bluesy anthem.

As the angst-ridden Buddy, Michael McGrath shows, yet again, what an underappreciated acting/singing talent he is. Nicholaw plays to McGrath’s strengths by not over-extending him in “The Right Girl,” originally a dance number for Gene Nelson. Only Victor Garber’s Ben disappoints, suggesting little of the snobbish façade that contains seeds of its own destruction.

There are great turns by faded names. Mimi Hines is a scream as she belts “Broadway Baby” from the side of her mouth. Yvonne Constant is the best Solange I’ve ever seen, giving new meaning to “Ah, Paris,” while JoAnne Worley is as ditsy as ever leading “Who’s That Woman.” Opera great Lucine Amara spins out a lovely “One More Kiss,” but the usually delicious Christine Baranski is at sea with “I’m Still Here.”

As Young Phyllis and Young Sally, Jenny Powers and Katie Klaus are impressive finds. Philip Bosco has little to do as Weismann, but Anne Rogers and Robert E. Fitch, along with Denise Payne and Barrett Martin as their younger selves dance an exquisite bolero.

Whatever its shortcomings, this “Follies” piles sensation upon sensation. It has a great score, a fascinating premise and Donna Murphy. As another song has it, “who could ask for anything more?”

-- David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 9, 2007

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