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Falling In Love With Follies

The new Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's landmark 1971 musical is not-to-be-missed. logo
Bernadette Peters in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
In one sense, Stephen Sondheim's and James Goldman's landmark 1971 Follies has not come such a long way. Forty years after its spectacular debut, it's traveled just a mere five blocks down south Broadway for its new engagement at the Marquis Theatre.

But Eric Schaeffer's production has definitely come a long way since its debut last May at the Kennedy Center, and I don't mean just the literal 200-mile journey. What was formerly an uneven production -- due in large part to the miscasting of minor roles, some sluggish first-act pacing and static staging -- is now a mostly triumphant one, led by the extraordinary Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, and Danny Burstein.

Set at the first -- and last -- reunion of the members of the Weismann Follies, the show is a brilliant meditation on how what we remember -- and misremember -- not only haunts us, but defines us, while simultaneously succeeding as a bittersweet valentine to a lost theatrical art form. It's quite a party trick!

In this case, the memories of what might have been have derailed the lives of Follies' two central couples: former showgirls Phyllis Rogers (Maxwell) and Sally Durant (Peters) and their respective husbands, super-successful diplomat Benjamin Stone (Raines) and traveling salesman Buddy Plummer (Burstein), all of whom are now trapped in disastrous marriages.The crux of their malaise, we soon discover, derives from Sally's lifelong infatuation with Ben, which she rekindles -- with unpleasant results -- at the reunion, combined with Phyllis' seeming failure to live up to Ben's ambition -- and her own expectations.

Without question, this version delineates the spiritual dilemma of Follies' four central characters more sharply than any of the four previous productions I've seen. But it's part of the inherent genius of Follies is that we physically see the quartet's much-different youthful selves (the excellent Kirsten Scott, Lora Lee Gayer, Christian Delcroix, and Nick Verina), full of hope, ambition, and sheer stupidity -- making it easy to mourn the bitter, unhappy people they've become.

The foursome's inner selves are laid out in excruciating detail in the show's "Loveland" sequence at the end of act II, where each performs a vaudeville-like number that spells out their feelings. As might be expected, it is the production's high point. (Derek McLane's unexpected, lavish set design and Gregg Barnes' wonderfully evocative costumes add immeasurably to the proceedings.)

Peters may not be the most traditional casting for Sally, now an ultra-neurotic housewife in Phoenix, but she exquisitely captures the character's unfathomable sadness and longing. It's a star turn, for sure, but one that brings attention to itself because of its truthfulness. During her first-act her rendition of "In Buddy's Eyes," one is acutely aware of Sally lying to both herself and Ben, and her understated version of "Losing My Mind" is simply shattering in its poignancy.

Jan Maxwell in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
Maxwell, statuesque and gorgeous, often steals the show. She unleashes her razor-sharp verbal delivery and martini-dry wit with unerring accuracy, landing zinger after zinger, while also displaying just enough of Phyllis' almost-hidden vulnerability. Her take on "Could I Leave You?" moves from sardonic to explosive with pitch-perfect precision, and she gives more than her all to "The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie" (although choreographer Warren Carlyle, try as he might, can't fully disguise the actress' less-than-amazing terpsichorean ability).

As great as these ladies are, they're matched here by their leading men, an all-too-rarity in Follies' productions. Burstein is simply a revelation as Buddy, a potent combination of anger and despair, hopelessness and hopefulness. In both "Buddy's Blues" and "The Right Girl," his pain at loving the wrong girl -- Sally -- is almost too much to bear.

Raines' magnificent baritone allows him to do full justice to Ben's musical numbers, notably "The Road You Didn't Take." Throughout the show, we watch Ben's seemingly rock-hard shell slowly crack, and Raines' end-of-show-breakdown during "Live, Laugh, Love" is terrifying in its realness.

As film star Carlotta Campion, the diminutive Elaine Paige completely brings down the house with a magnificently executed "I'm Still Here," which begins almost conversationally and ends with a burst of defiance. In her hands, this now-beloved song is truly the anthem of a still-thriving survivor rather than a final summation of a long career.

And unlike in D.C., there's not a weak link anywhere in the cast: the wonderful Terri White receives deserved cheers for leading the company in a full-bodied "Who's That Woman," Jayne Houdyshell is hilarious as Hattie Walker, earning laughs before literally stunning the crowd with an ultra-belty "Broadway Baby"; opera star Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz gorgeously sing "One More Kiss"; Susan Watson and Don Corriea bring needed charm to "Rain on the Roof"; and a glamorous-looking Mary Beth Peil deliciously delivers the tongue-twisting "Ah, Paree."

Yes, one can quibble with some of the decisions made here -- including some revisions to the book and a few of Schaeffer's staging choices. But, ultimately, you'd be crazy to miss this Follies.

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