Bernadette Peters on opening night.
I have said it before and say it again: Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical, Follies, is one of that tiny handful that can legitimately contend for best ever. It was so much ahead of its time at its 1971 premiere that most of us critics were left behind. Since then it has had enough American and British stagings for all of us to recognize and revel in its greatness.
The current revival by Washington’s Kennedy Center may not be flawless, but it does commendably approximate the today unaffordable lavishness of the original Michael Bennett-Harold Prince production, and deserves a visit from anyone within at least a 500-mile radius.
um-performance final event at a theater to be razed for a parking lot. The original producer of a show-within-a-show, Dimitri Weismann, modeled on Ziegfeld, has assembled the members of the original cast for a fabulous, nostalgic get-together, a farewell to theatrical opulence no longer financeable.
The plot centers on two couples: former showgirls , Sally and Phyllis, who back then married their stage-door-johnny fans, Buddy and Ben. They come to the party, as do other Weismann cast members, some with hits, some with compromise under their belts. Present, too, are the ghosts of their former selves, notably young Sally and Phyllis and young Buddy and Ben, but also ghosts of yesteryear’s gorgeously bedizened showgirls, mutely flitting about.
The Goldman book is just sufficient. Sally and Ben were in love, but somehow married the two others: Sally, Buddy; Phyllis, Ben. Old feelings are rekindled in these not so happily marrieds. The rich businessman philanderer Ben, now leans toward the yearning, mousy-housewife Sally; Buddy, a run-of-the-mill salesman involved with one other woman, Margie, watches jealously. Phyllis, unhappily neglected and promiscuous, now dallies with a nondescript present young man.
We head for a special late development: an imaginary vaudeville show, Loveland, in which the four main characters and their younger selves become principals or soloists in fantasy numbers, mocking or celebrating what might have been. Sally becomes a quasi-tragic torch singer; Buddy a burlesque comic farcically torn between wife and mistress; Ben a star vaudevillian cavorting with a bevy of adoring girls; Phyllis a sexy prima donna saucy in a satirical number backed up by zealous, acrobatic chorus boys.
Act One here suffers a bit. Director Eric Schaeffer doesn’t quite know what to do with the ghostly young lovers, who, moreover, are played somewhat too pallidly. (They were good enough, though, in an early number, “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” in which they reenact their first date as a foursome in tandem with their observing and reminiscing elder selves.)
But such is Sondheim’s expertise that every single number is a winner, whether joyous or melancholy, sentimental or electrifying, wistful or biting. Both the clever yet not excogitated-sounding lyrics, and the richly varied yet consistently highly musical melodies work to perfection as you listen in transporting wonderment. In the autobiographical numbers by perennial histrions, Linda Lavin is sparklingly energetic in Hattie’s “Broadway Baby,” Elaine Page charming but a trifle over the top in Carlotta’s “I’m Still Here,” and Terri White indomitable in Stella’s “Who’s That Woman?” gazing along with other women at their no-longer-young mirror images. Here Warren Carlyle’s chorography falls a trifle short of Michael Bennett’s original one.
Also slightly underachieved are Solange’s “Ah, Paris!” by the French chanteuse Regine, and Heidi’s “One More Kiss” by the former operatic diva, Rosalind Elias–the one through imperfect English, the other through not enough operetta gusto. But they are still indestructible songs. Sondheim’s bravura is steadily in command, assertive or restrained as called for, with seemingly unmatchable number equaled by the next no less matchless one, providing the kind of high you’d think only consciousness-expanding drugs could offer.
The four principals are all first-class, but each has a particular forte. From the ageless Bernadette Peters (Sally), it is touching vulnerability; from the virile Ron Raines (Ben), it is powerful voice with impeccable diction; from the jolly Danny Burstein (Buddy), it is brashly comedic savvy. The one-and-only Jan Maxwell (Phyllis) alone shines equally at everything she touches.
With Derek McLane’s smashing scenery, including a bed of roses surpassing every botanical garden’s; Gregg Barnes’s all-enhancing costumes; Natasha Katz’s discreetly versatile lighting,; and a large, expertly conducted orchestra in the subtle Tunick orchestrations, this Follies would be folly to ignore. Its only genuine shortcoming is the absence of old time stars, such as the ones the show is partly about. But who wouldn’t be lenient confronted with such rare abundance?
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.