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The Barrington Stage Company tackles this masterpiece among cult musicals. logo
The "Beautiful Girls" of Follies
(Photo © Kevin Sprague)
Fans of the 1971 Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies tend to approach any new production with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Though the show features a Sondheim score that can only be described as divine, Goldman's book has always been problematic (and has often been whittled down for revivals). The subject matter of the piece -- it's basically about the mid-life crises of two married couples, played out against the background of a reunion of old-time show business folks at a Broadway theater that's about to be demolished -- doesn't exactly make for an evening of uplifting entertainment, no matter how beautiful or exhilarating some of the individual songs. And Follies requires an extraordinarily high level of achievement in every area of production to make its effect.

So I experienced mixed feelings when I heard that the Barrington Stage Company had scheduled Follies, not only because of the potential pitfalls inherent in the show but also because of what I knew of the track record of the company's artistic director, Julianne Boyd. I had seen two previous shows helmed by Boyd: (1) a worthy staging of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret, and (2) a production of Sondheim's Company that suffered from a weird scenic design concept and from Boyd's outrageous cutting of the pivotal song "Someone Is Waiting." How would the director and her colleagues deal with the enormously demanding Follies? Would Boyd cut some of the pastiche numbers from the score because she didn't like them or felt they had nothing to do with the plot? And how big would the orchestra be? The happy news is that, despite significant shortcomings, this Follies is more than respectable overall and certainly far superior to the largely deplorable production that the Roundabout Theatre Company had the nerve to present on Broadway in 2001.

Things don't start out well at Barrington: As a small orchestra (eight pieces) strikes up those chilling opening chords, the ghosts of the Weismann Follies girls appear in lighting by Scott Pinkney and D. Benjamin Courtney that isn't as spooky as it should be. Then, in a recreation of one of the silliest staging bits from the Roundabout production, impresario Dimitri Weismann (Gordon Stanley) enters and moves around the darkened theater with a flashlight. When the opening number "Beautiful Girls" begins, we realize that director Boyd has cut the role of the tenor Roscoe: the solo section of the song is sung instead by Weismann! This makes no sense and, to add insult to injury, Stanley sings the climactic high note in falsetto.

Happily, matters improve thereafter. Boyd keeps the show moving at just the right pace, having judiciously trimmed the Goldman book. (She might even have gone a bit further in her cuts.) More crucially, she has cast almost all of the leading and featured roles from strength. Though Kim Crosby looks about 15 years too young for Sally Durant Plummer, she acts and sings the difficult part so well that one is hesitant to carp. (Right after Crosby had sung the gorgeously heartbreaking "Too Many Mornings" with Jeff McCarthy as Benjamin Stone, one of my theater companions said: "That alone was worth the trip from New York.") In looks, voice, and manner, Leslie Denniston is just right for the role of Phyllis Rogers Stone. And Lara Teeter, who also did a nice job of choreographing the production, offers a refreshingly non-stereotypical characterization of Buddy Plummer.

The one wild card among the four leads is McCarthy. The actor is blessed with serious acting chops and a rich baritone but, during the performance I attended, he kept forgetting and stumbling over Sondheim's intricate lyrics. The first hint of trouble came when he tried to rhyme "cement" and "spent" with "vents" (rather than "vent," as written) in "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" -- and it was downhill from there, with dropped or mangled words in all of his songs except "Too Many Mornings." When McCarthy sang "you won't remember at all" in "The Road You Didn't Take," the phrase was all too accurate, and there were some embarrassing line transpositions in "Live, Laugh, Love." One can only hope that this flubbing was attributable to opening night jitters and that matters will improve as the run continues; McCarthy will be a great Ben if he can just get his lines and lyrics down.

Jeff McCarthy and cast in Follies
(Photo © Kevin Sprague)
With a single exception, the women playing the juicy supporting roles of the former Follies stars deliver the goods. If Donna McKechnie's stage persona is a little less hard-bitten than ideal for Carlotta Campion, she nevertheless triumphs with a thrilling rendition of the survivor's anthem "I'm Still Here." (McKechnie does modify the vowel of the song's final word, singing "but I'm hair, look who's hair, I'm still hair" in order to belt out those repeated high notes, but she sounds so great that it scarcely matters.) Diane Houghton is a pip as the vital old broad Hattie Walker, and the powerhouse Diane J. Findlay leads the ladies in the famous mirror number "Who's That Woman?" But, hélas, Joy Franz is a major disappointment as Solange LaFitte because her French accent is almost non-existent.

The legendary Marni Nixon is a real casting coup in the role of Heidi Schiller, which she played during the latter part of the Roundabout production's run. Her performance of the elegiac Viennese waltz "One More Kiss" is exemplary -- and Michelle Dyer sings so magnificently as the character's younger counterpart that you can be sure she'll have a major career in musical theater or opera. Natalie Mosco and David Young are perfect as the Whitmans, and the uncredited dancers who play their younger selves look so much like them that the "Danse d'Amour" is wonderfully eerie.

This Follies is an odd mixture of solid professionalism and amateurishness, of smart directorial decisions and missteps, of production elements that range from impressive to lackluster. Boyd and Teeter create some memorable stage pictures but it was unwise of them to have Ben, Phyllis, Sally, and Buddy watch their younger counterparts (well played, sung, and danced by Eric Ulloa, Nili Bassman, John Patrick, and Elise Molinelli) during "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow / Love Will See Us Through." Because of poor staging, the final moments of the show are not as emotionally piercing as they should be. And I can't imagine why Boyd and/or musical director Darren Cohen chose to cut the music that's supposed to lead us back into the Ben/Sally embrace after "Too Many Mornings" when the show is performed with an intermission, as it is here.

Although Alejo Vietti's costumes are fine and flattering overall, some of them are not -- e.g., Leslie Denniston's outfit for the striptease number "Ah, But Underneath." The show's scenic design (by Michael Anania) and sound design (by Randy Hansen) are first-rate but the young women's wigs are all wrong, particularly the one sported by Nili Bassman. The diminutive orchestra sounds good in some sections of the score, inadequate in others. Still, the Barrington Stage Company's Follies is worth the (roughly) six-hour travel time back and forth to Sheffield, Massachusetts because its pluses finally outweigh its minuses, and any generally satisfactory presentation of this masterpiece is not to be missed.

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