Gregory Harrison and company in Follies(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Gregory Harrison and company in Follies
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Stephen Sondheim has been sung--pun definitely intended--for just about 45 years now. It's primarily his lyrics that have prompted the deafening hosannas, but his melodies are every bit as polished, sleek, sinuous, and kinetic. The truth of the statement has rarely been more apparent than in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Follies. Sondheim will never need to be told, as the Ed Kleban figure is in A Class Act, that perhaps his words are better than his music. By the time the letters spelling out "Follies" that sit upstage on Mark Thompson's deliberate shambles of a set blaze fleetingly for the last time, Sondheim has without question been established as the occasion's conquering hero.

Oh, those songs! They include not only four monumental contemporary ballads but also a string of glittering pastiches that amount to a clever retrospective of American popular songwriting conventions in the first half of the 20th century. Maybe Sondheim's ease with a tune continues to be underappreciated because the words sitting on his fluid lines are such focus-grabbers. When--in one instance of literally hundreds that might be cited--he rhymes "soul-stirring" with "bolstering," you have to give him a big hand.

But once you've applauded his incomparable skills until your palms are sore, what else is there to relish in this new production of Follies on its own terms? Or, worse, when it's compared to the Harold Prince-Michael Bennett 1971 production, considered by many theatergoers to be the most truly spectacular staging Broadway has ever seen? Advance dish has had it that Matthew Warchus' version, scaled-down due to the Roundabout's budgetary restrictions, is a ghostly reflection of its predecessor--this in a show that's all about the damaging pull of ghosts.

Well, as happens with these things, the rumors of inadequacy are greatly exaggerated. Yes, there are sluggish stretches throughout the show, many of them arising from unsolved kinks in James Goldman's libretto. Yes, some of the veteran performers who've been enticed into the proceedings seem preoccupied with thoughts about simply making it through to the end. Yes, in deciding to concentrate on the drama of the show, Warchus has cast the show's leads with performers who seem more comfortable speaking than singing. Also: Warchus allows so many stage waits between scenes meant to flow seamlessly from one to the next that another, medium-length play could be split up and performed in the wide-open spaces.

With drawbacks like these, there's every reason to stay home and listen to the original cast recording and/or watch a videocassette copy of the 1980s Lincoln Center concert version of the show that featured Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, and Elaine Stritch, among others. The Roundabout production provides no good answer to the question, "Why revive the show if the leads are not high-caliber Broadway singers?"

Still, enough small pleasures abound in this stripped-down Follies to keep ticket-buyers delighted, even awed. According to theater history, the solution to adapting James Goldman's The Girls Upstairs as a musical extravaganza struck Harold Prince like a dropped sandbag when he picked up a famous photograph of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of the just-destroyed Roxy theater. He apparently realized it could be a doozy of an idea to examine the eroding marriages of two couples against the redolent background of a Follies reunion attended by former showgirls who'd done everything from fading into complete obscurity to graduating to international fame.

So Sally (Judith Ivey) and Buddy (Treat Williams) and Phyllis (Blythe Danner) and Ben Gregory Harrison), each wondering whether he or she tied the knot with the right person in long-ago 1941, arrive at the Weismann Theater in 1971, where Dmitri Weismann is throwing one last bash before the wrecking ball swings. There, the marrieds begin to relive a time when Sally believed herself to be in love with Ben and married Buddy only when Ben jilted her for Phyllis. To compound the poignancy, their younger phantoms of these four materialize as reminders of their 30-year-old dreams.

If this skewed version of La Ronde sounds plodding in the retelling, it's also plodding in the writing and directing. Sally, frumpy and nervous and unrealistic, is particularly irritating in her outlook, and Phyllis's one-dimensional hauteur is no more appealing. As for the men, they are both stolidly angry. Ben is successful but profoundly discontented; Buddy has not quite accepted the facts of his constrained life, most immediately that he has a girl friend called Margie but remains inexplicably enamored of Sally.

But though the quick mood-changes this beleaguered quartet undergo aren't compelling, some aspects of the issues they raise about the dynamics of marriage are. By the time Sondheim and his longtime collaborator Prince concocted Follies with Goldman, the two had taken up the subject of connubial bliss and connubial blight in Company and would do so again in A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along. Therefore, marriage can be considered one of their abiding concerns. And it's in Follies, with Goldman in on the caper, that they make their most clear-eyed observations on the subject. When Sally, Buddy, Ben, and Phyllis abandon their early adulthood dreams at the final blackout, their shared action has psychological weight. Their individual decisions are much more sagacious than the contention Prince and Sondheim put forward so insistently ten years later in Merrily We Roll Along: that the dreams of the young are inevitably pure and only become corrupted by time. (Don't forget that Putting It Together, the revue-with-loose-storyline constructed from Sondheim's oeuvre, also involves two couples encountering growing pains.)

What the four protagonists learn in Follies is what the show is about and what makes the doomed Weismann Theater a metaphorical crucible. The musical drama's focal message, parsed so subtly and from every conceivable angle in Sondheim's magnificent score, is expressed explicitly not once but twice by impresario Weismann. (The name Weismann, as the puzzle-loving Sondheim certainly realizes, is almost an exact anagram of "wise man"). "I always knew when things were over," this gentleman comments mid-way through the proceedings. And later, for those who didn't jot down the remark, he says: "If nothing else, I know when things are over."

Judith Ivey, Treat Williams, Blythe Danner,and Gregory Harrison in Follies(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Judith Ivey, Treat Williams, Blythe Danner,
and Gregory Harrison in Follies
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What other treats does Warchus' mounting hold in store? Well, Treat Williams makes Buddy believable throughout, nowhere more so than when he confesses his infidelity to his distraught wife. Judith Ivey makes Sally as natural as a home-cooked dish; this is another in the actress' gallery of women let down by their circumstances. Blythe Danner cuts a soigné figure in her long evening gown with a collar that stands up as rigidly as her choler. (The sky-blue dress that costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge has handed Danner is the one glaring error in a parade of suitably smart outfits.) Nuance by nuance, Gregory Harrison builds to Ben's implosion in "Live, Laugh, Love." His crumbling may not be as devastating as Merman's in the Sondheim-Jule Styne "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, but whose could be? With all the expertise these four flaunt, wouldn't it have been swell if they had the kind of thrilling voices Sondheim calls for? This question applies particularly to Ivey, who has to act "Losing My Mind" rather than let the song do the nervous breakdown for her.

Among the supporting players, it's Bergen who tops the list of roof-raisers. By the time she's finished "I'm Still Here," she has sung the life of a woman who's known more ups and downs than a mountain range. It's the kind of showcasing that wins Tony nominations and awards. But, selling herself as if it meant a lot more to her than hawking Oil of the Turtle, Bergen may be drawing more on her own story than on Carlotta's. Doesn't this woman, the most successful of the Weismann grads, represent the impresario's statement about knowing when and how to move on? (In the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse treatment, Ann Miller's Carlotta was unforgettably a buoyant survivor.)

Betty Garrett (as adorable as all get-out), Marge Champion, Joan Roberts (almost 60 years after she was Laurey in Oklahoma!), Jane White, and Donald Saddler all have their moments--but maybe nostalgia is being relied on to see them through, rather than confident performances. Carol Woods, who gets to stand in the spotlight for "Who's That Woman?" seems to be singing in a key that's slightly too low for her. The audience cheers these stalwarts on, but in the boisterous response can be heard the sighs of wishful thinking.

Scoring more effectively--particularly in the second-act "Loveland" segment, during which the four focal characters sing their dilemmas--are Lauren Ward, Joey Sorge, Erin Dilly, and Richard Roland as (respectively) the young Sally, Buddy, Phyllis, and Ben. They're especially winning while doing the movements choreographer Kathleen Marshall and associate choreographer Joey Pizzi have provided for Sondheim's counterpointed Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart spoofs "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" and "Love Will See Us Through."

Almost the entire "Loveland" portion works. The low point, unfortunately, is the misfire of "Losing My Mind"; Ivey sings in two registers that so far have not been introduced to each other. Danner gets the high marks for her slinky whirl to "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." Supported by a chorus of pumped men approximately the age Phyllis prefers for her dalliances, Danner goes through the steps with a captivating, can-you-believe-I'm-doing-this grin. But the flashiest song-and-dance of the evening comes in the first act: Despite Woods' less-than-thrilling vocal, it's "Who's That Woman?" Although the number seems not to be building the way it should as the older Weismann girls tap in tandem with their nimble shadows, a shower of silver confetti provides a terrific button; suddenly the stage is filled with the illusion of mirrors shattering. Congratulations to whomever came up with this literally brilliant notion. (Who says you can't do plenty with less?)

There's a belt-tightened air about this Follies that seems in sync with today's stock market jitters. The show has been scaled back, and the problems intrinsic to it--mostly having to do with those four bickering folks--don't seem any closer to being solved. Which suggests that the title of the musical can be considered a reference not only to the characters' whims but also to the attempts of producer folks to get a wrong book right. Maybe Weismann's hint about knowing when to move on needs to be given some serious thought by the non-fictional showbiz population. And yet, if only for the sake of that ageless Sondheim score, you can't help hoping that entrepreneurs will give in from time to time and indulge their follies.