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NEW YORK — Mention that the original 1971 production of Follies was passed over in the Tony Awards race for best musical and theater chat sites tend to explode into fresh howls of outrage, provoking the kind of breast-beating anguish rarely witnessed outside of Sicilian funerals. But 40 years after its Broadway premiere, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s show still dazzles with its structural complexity and brilliant score, making it hard not to share that sense of injustice.
If this revival that comes to Broadway via an early-summer run at the Kennedy Center isn’t flawless, its transcendent moments more than offset its imperfections. That’s particularly so in the notoriously tricky second act, when Sondheim and Goldman’s conceptually bold marriage of psychoanalytical angst and sequined showbiz confection kicks into high gear.
The show is set during a 1971 reunion of performers from the “Weissman Follies,” a fictionalized version of the revues that flourished in New York’s grand theaters in the early decades of the 20th century, notably under impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. Aging former showgirls and their plus-ones gather to farewell the Weissman show palace, about to be demolished to build a car park. That occasion becomes a forum for remembrance and regret, for reflections on roads not taken and for clumsy bids to reverse the course of dissatisfied lives.
The vehicles for all that emotional turmoil are two seemingly mismatched married couples — Sally (Bernadette Peters) and Buddy (Danny Burstein), Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) and Ben (Ron Raines) – who were a foursome in their youth. But Sondheim and Goldman reflect beyond the couples’ intertwined fates on the illusory nature of love and happiness, the tarnishing of the American Dream, and the obsolescence of chintzy romantic spectacle in the dawning age of cynicism.
The interweaving of past and present, ghosts and guests, is elegantly realized as spectral showgirls in elaborate headdresses prowl languidly around the crumbling theater, curiously studying their older selves. But while the visuals are striking, director Eric Schaeffer struggles to find the flow in the party small talk of the sluggish first act, as old acquaintances are renewed. The stiltedness of some of Goldman’s dialogue doesn’t help. There are enjoyable distractions, however, as performers blow the dust off their old specialty numbers one last time.
Highlights among these include Mary Beth Peil, leaving behind her prim Chicago society matron on The Good Wife to play a willowy French glamour-puss in “Ah, Paris!”; Jayne Houdyshell, finding fresh comic nuances in that eternally optimistic hymn to starry-eyed ambition, “Broadway Baby” (if TV and film casting directors were paying attention, this woman would be a national treasure like the great character actors of old Hollywood); and Terri White, belting out the lead on “Who’s That Woman,” a vigorous ensemble riff on female self-image.
There are also jewels among the book songs. Elaine Paige wrenches every ounce of bruised experience and jaded humor from “I’m Still Here.” No matter how many times you’ve heard them, Sondheim’s lyrics to that survivor’s anthem, charting the decline of a screen goddess to a Vegas act, a camp icon, and finally, a TV fixture (back when television was a demotion, not a fresh career opportunity), make the song a peerless example of the wry character confessional.
The plot’s main agent of conflict is Sally. When her lifelong love for Ben is rekindled by what she interprets as encouragement from the wealthy former politician, she impulsively maps out a new future for them. Peters initially seems a little cool and poised to convince as the Phoenix housewife pining away for 30 years. But when Sally’s thankless fallback husband, Buddy, and Ben’s embittered wife, Phyllis, react against their spouses’ romantic mid-life delusions, something clicks, and this production suddenly finds thrilling emotional traction. The transitional high point is Phyllis’ seething rebuke to Ben, “Could I Leave You?,” performed by Maxwell with magnificent wounded rage.
As reality warps into fantasy Derek McLane’s set becomes a riot of tulle roses, drenched in waves of shifting color by Natasha Katz’s lighting. That gloriously kitschy backdrop sets the stage for each of the four principals to have a show-stopping meltdown as Weissman-style production number.
Burstein becomes a manic vaudevillian, angrily clowning his way through “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues.” Peters turns the torchy “Losing My Mind” into a shattering account of romantic yearning, uncovering all the vulnerability she kept hidden earlier. Maxwell smolders and vamps through “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” attempting to reconcile the contradictions of a bored trophy wife who craves girlish passion. And in “Live, Laugh, Love,” Raines (a longtime Guiding Light regular with a rich baritone) reveals the hollowness beneath Ben’s smug exterior opening up like a yawning abyss.
This multi-part “Loveland” sequence brings out the best not only in the performers, but also in Schaeffer and choreographer Warren Carlyle, who stage the extended masque with wit and imagination. Kicking off with the young versions of the two couples (Lora Lee Gayer, Christian Delcroix, Kirsten Scott and Nick Verina) singing the deliriously perky promise of a sunshiny future, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” this part of the show is pure Sondheim genius.
For the record, the musical that beat Follies for the top Tony in 1971 was Two Gentlemen of Verona, a flower-power twist on Shakespeare that played as a cute but quaint relic when the Public Theater revisited it in Central Park in 2005. By contrast, Sondheim and Goldman’s show only grows more bewitching with age. It’s unlikely any staging will ever equal the extravagant showmanship of the original, co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett. But just having Follies back on Broadway, played by a full orchestra and performed by a gifted cast, is reward enough.
Cast: Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, Elaine Paige, Don Correia, Christian Delcroix, Rosalind Elias, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Lora Lee Gayer, Michael Hayes, Leah Horowitz, Jayne Houdyshell, Florence Lacey, Mary Beth Peil, David Sabin, Kirsten Scott, Frederick Strother, Nick Verina, Susan Watson, Terri White
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Goldman
Director: Eric Schaeffer
Music director: James Moore
Choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Gregg Barnes
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Nederlander Presentations, Adrienne Arsht, HRH Foundation
Executive producer: Allan Williams
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