Daddycatcher has always loved the idea of Follies but in execution it has always lacked something that would make a strong case for its near mythic status in musical theatre.
The original Broadway production opened in 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre; it was directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman. The story concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre, scheduled for demolition, of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies,” a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies). Ghosts of the former Follies girls (and their stage door Johnnies) haunt the decrepit theatre as the party guests reminisce on their past glory, long-lost loves, and missed opportunities. The show, which received mixed reviews, closed after 522 performances. More so than any other problematic show before or since, it has attained a cult-like status among musical theater aficionados.
The 2001 Broadway revival (produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company) was marred by some unfortunate casting choices and a minuscule budget. The 2007 Encores! concert staging was obviously limited by its own concert-staging concept.
While the show is blessed with a glorious score by Sondheim, Goldman’s book has gone through so many revisions since the original production. Because of this each production of Follies is just a little bit different from the version before. One cannot deny that producing a production of Follies is tempting. Most serious musical theatre artists want to crack the puzzle that is Follies. They want to be the one that makes Follies work. Hell, even Daddycatcher has a vision for Follies if he were ever to direct it.
The current production now playing at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway is probably the closest thing to the Follies that Daddycatcher has envisioned in his head. It comes to us directly from a sold-out run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
While many characters get their brief moment in the spotlight, the show really focuses on two couples, Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone. Sally and Phyllis were showgirls in the Follies. Both couples are deeply unhappy with their marriages. Sally is still as much in love with Ben as she was years ago fueling Buddy’s infidelity. Ben and Phyllis’ utter contempt for each other is exceedingly chilly.
The 40-person cast is led by two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters as Sally, Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, Danny Burstein as Buddy, and Ron Raines as Ben. They are joined by Elaine Paige, Jayne Houdyshell, Mary Beth Peil, Rosalind Elias, Susan Watson, and Terri White in plum supporting roles as former chorines.
Director Eric Schaeffer has crafted a production that expertly balances the intimate story of the core foursome with the epic sweep of a world gone by. The physical production is probably the closest to the lavish design of the original 1971 production. The costumes worn by the showgirls and chorines of Follies past are exquisite. The set is appropriately run-down and the Marquis Theatre is draped in gray tarps giving the illusion of a theatre past its prime. The lighting design is first-rate as it carefully differentiates the living characters versus the ghosts of their former selves. And what a joy to hear this haunting score played by a full 28-piece orchestra.
Peters completely escapes into her role as Sally. She really shows us the vulnerability behind Sally, who has convinced herself that the reason she is unhappy is because she married the wrong man. Her duets with Ben (Raines), especially “Too Many Mornings,” soar. Maxwell is sufficiently icy as the emotionally abandoned Phyllis. However, when she unleashes a tidal wave of fury during “Could I Leave You?” at Ben you see a woman at her breaking point in a loveless marriage. Burstein portrays the hapless Buddy with gusto and Raines delivers the goods as the man everyone wants.
Most people are divided on Paige’s portrayal of Carlotta Campion, the ultimate showbiz survivor who get to sing one of the show’s most rendered songs, “I’m Still Here.” For this theatergoer, she was the perfect Carlotta. She was hard-edged but every bit the glamorous star. Her rendition of “I’m Still Here” started off with a little bit too much mugging but ended defiantly once it became clear that it was no longer a show piece to the guests but an internal expression of her trials.
The montage involving several of the characters brought down the house. Watson (the original Kim in Bye Bye Birdie) and Don Correia were adorable as they Whitmans, the duo specialty act who performed “Rain on the Roof.” Peil was positively radiant as she slunk around the stage in a form-fitting black dress during “Ah, Paris!” Houdyshell anchored the entire sequence with her balls-to-the-wall rendition of “Broadway Baby.”
World-renowned opera singer Elias, along with her ghost counterpoint Leah Horowitz, offered a haunting rendition of “One More Kiss.” White, a Broadway trooper in her own right, leads the ensemble of ladies (and their younger selves) in the showstopper “Who’s That Woman?”
In the original production, Follies was performed without an intermission. Since then every production of the show has inserted an intermission. On the night that Daddycatcher attended there was no intermission. The absence of an intermission greatly helps the piece. The show barrels forward to a coup de theatre: the Loveland sequence where the four main characters perform in a faux vaudeville dreamscape reflecting their emotional problems. During this sequence we get the moment we have all been waiting for: Bernadette Peters singing “Losing My Mind,” that torch song to lost love.
This production shows us all why Follies deserves a place in the canon of great American musicals. It is unapologetic in its themes but a love letter to the theatre. Go see it!!!