Saturday, December 17, 2011


Is it too much to say that Stephen Sondheim is our Shakespeare? I don't think so. His range of topics is epic; he's endlessly surprising; his work is deep and textured enough for dozens of interpretations; he's raised his art form to previously unimagined levels; directors sometimes go overboard conceptually when doing his shows; and performing his work is extremely challenging and even more rewarding. And comparing Richard Burton's Hamlet to Kevin Kline's to Laurence Olivier's is fascinating, so is comparing Dorothy Collins' Sally to Judith Ivy's to Victoria Clark's to Bernadette Peter's.

Don Correia, Susan Watson, Jayne Houdyshell, Mary Beth Peil.
Photo: Joan Marcus.
Of all of Sondheim's shows, Follies may offer the most opportunities for dissection and comparisons and disagreements. Last week I was in a Pain Quotidien and heard a young woman reciting lines from "In Buddy's Eyes" and then debating their meaning with her companions. (I agreed with her that Sally never did really love Buddy.) There are a lot of popular musicals, but there are few that people debate in this way. And most of them are by Sondheim.

Different productions of Follies add to the debates by using different versions of James Goldman's ever-problematic book. Seeing a variety of productions can be an education in the significance of a single line or two: it matters whether or not Sally has a suicide attempt in her past.

The version of Follies currently on Broadway is, unfortunately, the least impressive one I've seen (others: Papermill, Roundabout, Signature in Virginia, St. Bart's, Encores!).

Here's why:
  • The ballroom dancers Vincent and Vanessa have been cut from the show. When Old Vincent grasps Vanessa's waist as a pale imitation of the glorious lift that Young Vincent is carrying out behind him, when Old Vincent and Vanessa are a sweet old couple while Young Vincent and Vanessa are strapping and gorgeous and graceful and sexy, the whole of Follies is summed up in a glorious, heartbreaking microcosm.
  • The use of the ghosts is heavy-handed and not choreographed for maximum effect. For example, this Follies loses the wonderful coup de theatre during "Mirror, Mirror," when the young versions of the women appear en masse. Instead, they sort of trickle in. 
  • Also, the older women dance a little too well and the young women not spectacularly enough for the contrast to be as hard-hitting as it can be. (Also, why was there no young Stella on the other night? Perhaps the usual actress was out sick, but no understudy? Please.)
  • "Mirror, Mirror" lacks the poignancy it should have. Part of this is because Terri White is a disappointment. She loses her laughs with awkward timing, and she’s too smug in her singing.
  • The young versions of the characters are a too aware of the old versions. They are memories, ethereal. They shouldn't pull focus, except at very specific times.
  • In "Too Many Mornings," the switch from Old-Ben-Old-Sally to Old-Ben-Young-Sally is clunky. In one of the versions I saw (I believe it was Papermill), as Ben sings he seems to be reaching out to Sally but he is actually reaching out to Young Sally in back of her. It was a striking moment, as Ben's lies and self-delusions were made palpable.
  • Jan Maxwell voluntarily limits Phyllis's range. Yes, Phyllis is enraged, but she is also yearning, wistful, confused, and even the tiniest bit hopeful.
  • Ron Raines involuntarily limits Ben's range--he just doesn't have the chops to catch the full depth of Ben's anguish and regrets. 
  • Bernadette Peters is in over her head. I know people love her. I love her. I have articles I saved about her from 1969. But there is more to Sally than crying. And crying. And crying. And whipping her head around occasionally. And crying.
  • The transition into the Follies segment is unexciting.
  • Since the interpretations of three of the four leads are shallow, and since the use of the ghosts is a little clunky, Follies loses its inexorable build.
Are there good things in this Follies? Yes.
  • It's Follies. The music is gorgeous. The overture/entrance music is pure heaven. (If someone put a gun to my head and said that I had to pick my one favorite Sondheim melody--an impossibility, really--it might be "All Things Bright and Beautiful.")
  • During that opening music, two chorus-girl ghosts come out together, dancing to a tune only they can hear. The contrast between their period kicks and twirls and the show’s present-day look touches the sort of emotion the show is mostly lacking.
  • Natasca Katz’s lighting and Gregg Barnes’ costumes combine perfectly to delineate the scenes from the past with a washed-out, ghostly look.
  • Mary Beth Peil is a wonderful Solange, sexy, funny, self-aware. And you can understand every word of "Ah, Paree." (When Solange mentioned that she is 69, I thought, “It must be weird for Peil to have to say that she’s 69 when she’s so much younger.” My bad. Peil is 71—and rocking!)
  • Jayne Houdyshell makes “Broadway Baby” her own. The entire world has sung it before her, yet she makes it her own! It’s a simple, heartfelt interpretation. She’s lonely with just that bed and that chair. But she’ll survive it. She’s a Broadway Baby!
  • Danny Burstein is a convincing Buddy. Of the four leads, Buddy is the most “regular guy” and he would just like a “regular guy’s” life. Burstein gets that poignancy, and he does well by “Buddy’s Blues.”
  • Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are exquisite, as always, though the orchestra should have been even larger, as always.
General thoughts on the book:
  • The book has a leaning toward cheap jokes, such as Sally naming her kids Tom and Tim.
  • It drives me crazy that Sally is the character who forgets the name of the place where they went dancing 30 years earlier—she’s the one who would remember!
  • The exposition is amazingly clunky. “It’s 1971 and though the years have changed me, yes, I am Dmitri Weisman.” (Paraphrased.) That’s just one example.
  • I find it odd that Carlotta talks about how strangers tell her their life stories “not just the bad stuff” and soon after Buddy talks about how he remembers the whole past, “not just the bad stuff.” (Again, paraphrases.) Since Goldman uses this concept twice, I’ve got to think he believes that most people focus on the “bad stuff.” Interesting.
I am glad that Follies is on Broadway. I am glad that people are going to it and enjoying it. But, damn, I wish it were a better production.

(Row L, audience right, tdf ticket.)


Anonymous said...

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JB said...

I'm glad your opinion about the quality of this production seems to be in the minority. It's far better than you attest as are the three leads you didn't like. And good heavens, nothing was as bad as the last revival from Roundabout.

That being said, the Chicago production this fall was about as close to perfection as one could get with Follies.

Wendy Caster said...

Hi JB. I loved the Roundabout production.

The variety of opinions is one of the things I love about theatre and one of the things that frustrates me. How fascinating it would be to watch a show from someone else's point of view!