What haunts most about any production of Follies is not the chorus of ghosts that infiltrate the stage, the unfulfilled dreams or festered regrets infecting the wings, or even the bookends of youth and truth slammed into wrinkled reflection. What haunts, what thrills in a full-blown production are far more personal demons that tickle and torture when stirred and sickened by its score-borne virus. Follies is arguably the most likely musical to shame your dreams as it shipwrecks them upon the rocks and swells and troughs of its nearly three-hour tour. (Running time is actually 2 hours and 30 minutes--Gilligan be damned!)
For any demon-plagued theatre lover, particularly one particular to this score, there is no greater gift than sitting in a grand house (like the Kennedy Center), first row (audience right on the first night and left the following), feet away from legends and a 28-piece orchestra, connected by soaring moments and flashes of brilliance to a sea of strangers, collectively awash with Sondheim. The experience cannot be captured or replicated by media. It exists only for those who are there. It almost doesn't matter how perfect, im or otherwise, the production (Follies is terminally shelved between impossible and impractical), it dies by breaths; and if you don't show up for its life, yours may accumulate another regret.
Taken as a whole, this is the most beautifully sung production I have ever heard, even if it is not the best acted and is possibly the worst directed. Eric Schaeffer neglects a few fundamentals: most notably tempo, timing, and traffic management. Follies, on the page, is a collection of zigs and zags in need of a zip, something to bring and hold it together. He seems to have treed every scripted dictate without much consideration for the forest. But Follies, to further abuse metaphors, is a buffet, not completely dependant on chef-directed courses--many tastes, a hyper-sensory feast, well-seasoned. And this cast is, by and large, well-seasoned, some aged beyond perfection for their assigned roles, yet uniquely savory and luscious.
Bernadette Peters, as the weakly-hinged, Sally, sings the role beautifully. Flat out beautifully. The first night, though, I left the theater wondering if she could act a single unscored phrase. Her journey was the equivalent of standing still. Fortunately, one can stand still in the middle of oncoming traffic and create quite a commotion. She hit the major emotions but missed many of the feelings. The touch of her life's unrequited love registered no response. Sally refers to herself as fat (Ms. Peters is most assuredly not, and her clingy red dress didn't betray a single calorie), but there was no hint of insecurity. And when she delivered the momentous directive for Ben to kiss her lest she die, sounding like she was requesting the fifth ingredient to be retrieved from the woods, it was a bit ridiculous (What is she doing up there? She's in the wrong story!) Her "Losing My Mind" was the evening's greatest disappointment. I've seen her perform that song to devastating effect on a half-dozen concert occasions. Curious that context drained the life from it. Regardless, she was ultimately greatly satisfying and significantly better on Sunday evening.
Jan Maxwell, as Phyllis, was the most successful of the four leads. Her performance was textured and acheful. She has a powerful voice, less lush than the singers she sparred, but her dancing was like a terrorist--lethal arms and passion, not well controlled. She was saddled with an ill-fitting, too-long dress that she had to lift up at every turn to keep from falling; but she navigated with a sequined death grip. Her reward was a second, ill-fitting dress for "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." (Overall, the designer created stunning costumes. . . for the ghosts. The living fared less well.) And the porn hair, while beautiful, felt inappropriately tousled for the period and the character. Ms. Maxwell could have been more hostile, but Ron Raines had taken that emotion hostage. As a matter of fact, he had such a hold on hostility he seemed to forget that Ben is a man successful in both women and politics and requires a charm not obvious on the page. He, too, sang his role beautifully; but he never scratched beneath the surface of this thin-skinned character so Ben's inherent, emotional wavering and subsequent collateral damage came across more as affect than effect, just angry salt on a bitter wound. His end-of-show breakdown was powerful but could have been devastating had he expressed even fleeting likeability.
Danny Burstein, as Buddy, was too young in every way. While realistic for the part with younger co-stars or in a concert version, his energy, form, and salesmanship lacked, well, seasoning. His singing was lovely, and he played the emotions by the book. Perhaps he needs to stew in his own juices for a while or siphon off a little bitterness from Mr. Raines, something to marinate or wry-age those emotions a bit.
It pains me to say that Elaine Paige, my favorite performer of musicals, was an uninspired Carlotta. Oddly enough, it may have been her success and talent that undermined her most. As the "First Lady of British Musical Theater" (said so right there in her bio), she seems a long way from alternating good times and bum times. Sure, everyone has them, but Carlotta's life and livelihood rode astride those highs and lows. It is hard to believe that Ms. Paige has dined on pretzels and beer by necessity in recent memory. Not that she is thereby disqualified from playing the role, but every actor takes stage draped in perceptual assets and liabilities (as in life, as do we all). Her success proves both here. That said, I've never heard "I'm Still Here" sung better. She finishes the song with such full-throttled power that you can't help but celebrate the accomplishment. But it isn't a song that requires much singing, and the celebration should be for her endurance not her diaphragm. She is further undone by staging that is stupid and inconsiderate. On the first night, one of the actors blocked her face for the first half of the song. The woman is 4'11" at full stretch, and she was sitting down. For Heaven's sake, the conducter was at eye level at that point, so you don't stick an obstacle, in this case a completely superfluous actor with big hair, down stage. While Bernadette Peters was all emotional generalities, Elaine Paige was all specifics, almost to the point of pantomiming the words. The easiest and possibly worst sin in Sondheim is to not trust the song and simply tell the story. I would suggest she get on her knees and beg forgiveness, but we might lose sight of her entirely. Ms. Paige has everything it takes to blow the rafters off, but all she really needed to do was pull back the curtains.
One of the greatest joys of this show is the cameos, jewel-encrusted cameos--great numbers not bound by plot or concept. Linda Lavin as Hattie is dynamic and dynamite. She is not the smoky-throated broad of Ethel Shutta or Elaine Stritch, nor the fiesty but frail flower of Betty Garrett (from the 2001 Broadway revival). All were delightful as have been a parade of others. Ms. Lavin was like none of them. She is not playing to the jokes, she's in on the joke; but neither is she the joke. No old lady absurdly reliving the birth of a Broadway Baby, she is a Broadway Baby who's still got it, baby.
Terri White is outstanding as Stella. Mirror, Mirror is one of my favorite numbers ever. It is a powerhouse song made even more thrilling by all the ladies joining in, only muscle memory and menopause to get them through. Then, their younger selves appear, dancing perfectly; and we see what they all once were, the bookends to what could have been. Well, that's how the number usually is. This version was choreographed by Boggle--a fluster cluck of old hens about to be taken out by their own shadows. It is a testament to how good the song is and how amazing Terri White is that the number deservedly received the greatest ovation of the evening. Knowing Ms. White's history, while not necessary, only adds to the thrill.
The remaining performances were functional--although Regine's Solange was messier than the ruins of Rome. It was also interesting to see that a cast of universally unspectacular youngers, mere shadowns of their later selves, literally and figuratively, made the main action even more compelling.
This is not the definitive Follies, but it was definitely worth seeing--twice.