Saturday, October 01, 2011
I think Liz stole my best lines in her review of Follies last week—my damn procrastination foils me again! Seriously, though, my colleague and I share much of the same impression of the show. The grapevine told us that the newest incarnation (recently extended until January 22nd) couldn’t touch its predecessors. Yet, both of us, as first-time Follies goers, immediately understood the musical’s long-lasting appeal.
Yes, some of the staging needs re-thinking. The wrinkled gray sheets that drape the inside of the Marquis Theater, with their staples and safety pins, seem more reminiscent of a high school theatrical group set rather than a device that invokes a decrepit theater on the brink of destruction. As Liz mentioned, the odd showgirl fluttering and posing in the shadows of an already dimmed stage like lingering specters of a long-gone age never enhances the narrative and seems like forced symbolism. Despite these things, the poignancy of Sondheim’s story about a reunion of show people still soars. The soon-to-be dismantled theater they once performed in serves as an appropriate backdrop as the characters remember their past and reveal the imperfect present.
Most of the storytelling surrounds the relationships of two showgirls Sally (performed with endearing fragility by Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis (a tough-as-nails yet vulnerable Jan Maxwell) and the beaus who court them, Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines). In flashback sequences—shown in a split-screen like effect with the past interrupting the present action—we see their younger selves first portrayed with vibrancy and hope, and later amid the conflicts, which will haunt their future circumstances. This discord infiltrates the show as characters visit and reminisce, lies are uttered and exposed, and the unhappy pine for their youth. The other showgirls also offer the audience bits of their past and what they became, interweaving their stories through the central plot. In this huge cast, some impress more than others. Jayne Houdy Shell (Hattie) knocks out the perennial favorite “Broadway Baby” with a youngster’s gusto despite the eyeglasses that hang from a chain around her neck. Another classic number, “I’m Still Here,” though, suffers in a lackluster rendition by Elaine Paige, arranged with little movement or passion, which probably says more about the staging than the singer. Frankly, much of the song staging needs recalibration—too much relies on a singer standing stage center, moving stiffly side to side as if on a conveyer belt. Other numbers feel too long, such as the second-act “Folly” section, which could benefit from tightening.
Ultimately, the show still compels. Sondheim never shies from showing the despair of unmet desires or the tight-lipped seething of unfulfilled lovers—and, despite the characters’ flaws, all engage and fascinate. Every song reveals insight; I haven’t seen a musical in a long time containing so many layers (Well, maybe Next to Normal). There are no throwaway or spectacle pieces here, shoehorned in just to add glitter or glory. Every big moment offers purpose. To echo Liz’s sentiment: in a world where theater, at least on Broadway, relies on happily-ever-after revivals or familiar tested storylines transported from film and books, this show offers more authenticity and originality in revival than the first-run material currently out there.
(Purchased ticket, orchestra seat)