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Donna Murphy in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
Thirteen years ago, Donna Murphy made theatrical history with her brilliant portrayal of one of the ugliest women to ever grace a stage, Fosca, in Stephen Sondheim's Passion. Now, playing one of the most glamorous women to cross the footlights, Phyllis Rogers Stone -- the unhappily married former showgirl desperately wanting to recapture her youth -- in the City Center Encores! production of Sondheim's landmark 1971 musical Follies, she has once again crafted the kind of performance that will be remembered and talked about for years to come.

Phyllis is just one fraction of the central quartet of Follies, which features a poignant book by James Goldman (presented here in a truncated form of the original) and a rather complex if problematic structure in which past, present, and imagination bleed into and away from each other as it examines the roads these four -- and us by extension -- did and didn't take on their journey from innocence.

The rest of the foursome includes Phyllis' world-weary husband Ben (Victor Garber), a famous politician and author; her former roommate Sally Durant Plummer (Victoria Clark), now a neurotic and depressed Phoenix housewife; and Sally's long-suffering semi-schmuck of a husband, Buddy (Michael McGrath), a philandering oil salesman who's always known that Sally has never drowned her torch for Ben.

While each character presents its challenges, Phyllis has always been the trickiest part, leading many a smart actress down the wrong path of making her all ice and no fire. But Murphy, blessed with great intelligence and both superior dramatic and comic chops, finds the perfect formula, so we can still see the sweet kid buried beneath the acid-tinged barbs -- the very same one who haunts her as an onstage ghost (played by the lovely Jenny Powers) during this very last reunion of the Weismann girls.

Murphy dazzles from her first entrance, dressed like a Greek goddess (the delicious costumes are by William Ivey Long and Gregg Barnes), to her final moments, as she and Ben finally come to peace with the mess they've made of their 30-year marriage. Musically, she is perhaps the strongest actress to ever play the part -- which may be another reason that her two solos, "Could I Leave You" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" (in which she's garbed in a cut-up-to-there red dress that shows off her gorgeous gams), soar to the stratosphere.

Of course, Follies is an ensemble piece, and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who has staged much of the piece with enormous skill, has also made the brilliant decision of casting Clark. Although she's not the least bit "fat" as Sally claims about herself, Clark expertly captures Sally's insecurities and delusions. Not surprisingly, she also delivers beautiful, if not definitive, renditions of "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind' (during which she looks absolutely smashing in a form-fitting white gown).

Their onstage husbands fare only slightly less well. Garber is a physically ideal Ben, and he has many very moving moments. But his songs don't fit his voice completely comfortably, leading to some decidedly awkward notes. McGrath is a thoroughly believable Buddy, and he proves himself to be one of the last of the true song-and-dance men in his early Act II solo "The Right Girl." Unfortunately, he holds back on the intensity necessary for a fully effective "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues."

One of the major joys of Follies comes from its many set pieces, in which the other Weismann showgirls perform their signature numbers. Here, only one brings down the house: the incredible Mimi Hines' gutsy rendition of "Broadway Baby." Watching this priceless performer, one can still see glimpses of her Fanny Brice over 40 years ago. Would someone please get her another Broadway show soon?

The most famous number from Follies, "I'm Still Here," is usually presented -- both outside the show and in numerous productions -- as the ultimate survival anthem by a lady of a certain age. Here, it's placed in the relatively youthful hands (per the script) of Christine Baranski, who brings her very considerable acting skills and less-than-pretty vocalizing to bear on the song. Even if it's far from the best version I've heard of the song, it's still darn good, and Baranski's peerless timing on Carlotta's lines is almost worth the price of admission.

Elsewhere, Jo Anne Worley lends her distinctive personality to "Who's That Woman," but she underplays the lyrics, Yvonne Constant gets a few laughs from "Ah, Paree" and opera singers Lucine Amara and Leena Chopra pleasantly animate the Viennese waltz-like "One More Kiss."

Presenting Follies as an Encores! production has its pluses and minuses. The major asset is the 30-piece orchestra, under the direction of Eric Stern, which does full justice to Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations. On the downside, while Follies doesn't require enormous set changes, the absence of a grand staircase on stage robs the opening song "Beautiful Girls" of its grandeur, and the transition to the "Loveland" sequence lacks a little oomph. And the concert set-up seemed to make the numbers performed by the "Follies" stars a little too separate from the book, when they need to feel completely integrated.

Then again, if there was ever a perfect revival of Follies, the legion of this show's fans -- nay, fanatics -- would have nothing to look forward to. With this production, they get some satisfaction, thanks to a pair of perfect leading ladies, while the rest of their dream stays happily deferred.

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