Review: Follies" at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Follies”, Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking musical, is one of those great white whales that lurk in the American musical lists waiting for an Ahab to go after it.
Part legend, part work of genius of a particular and singular kind, "Follies" is an almost irresistible challenge for directors, producers and Broadway stars of an equally singular kind, the latter still eager to test their voices, acting chops and imaginations. Let’s not even get into set and costume designers.
It’s been revived and done-over a few times, ever since its critically mixed and financially less-than-overpowering debut produced by Harold Prince in 1971. This production featured genuine movie and Broadway stars like Dorothy McGuire, Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, a book by the best-selling screenwriter and novelist James Goldman, and music and lyrics by the fully-blown and fully-grown, pre-“Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins” master and genius Stephen Sondheim himself.
I’ve had both the blessing and perhaps misfortune not to have seen it, one of those quirky things like never seeing “Measure for Measure”. For me, there were the legends, old reviews, rumors, and knowing one theater buff who had seen it dozens of times. “None of them perfect,” he somewhat ruefully told me.
There may be a reason for that. As you can surmise from the current, spectacular, $7 million production staged from the ground-up by the Kennedy Center under Michael Kaiser, it’s obvious that the play and production itself isn’t what you’d call perfect, not even close.
But, it is ambitious, one of a kind, original (after 40 years no less), and it takes turns knocking your eyes and socks off while clenching your heart in a tight grip. When it’s not doing that, Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics are ravishing, especially when performed by the likes of Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell in the two female lead roles. Somehow, “Follies” manages to bring up thoughts of Ziegfeld, Fellini, The Not So Young and the Restless, opera, MGM musicals if MGM musicals could bite all at once. As play (a status it aspires to by way of the script and content); “Follies” is a mess. Even so, you can’t take your eyes off it, tune it out, or ever forget it.
It’s very much a mixed bag, but there a lot of goodies in that bag, and it bristles with personality and originality.
For one thing, it has an ungainly structure: in the 1970s, veterans of a long-ago music revue resembling the Ziegfeld Follies of the 1930s, gather together in a sort of show biz high school reunion on the occasion of the destruction of the theater where they worked, sang, danced and fell in and out of love. That’s the first act set up, in which we meet the quartet of lovers, married couples and apparently ex-lovers who are the principal dramatic or more accurately melodramatic focus here. There’s Sally Durant Plummer (Peters), married to the high-energy salesman Buddy (Danny Burstein) and there’s Phyllis Rogers Stone (Maxwell), married to the successful, lazily charismatic Benjamin.
On hand are other luminaries including the vampish Carlotta, now a movie and television star of some renown, Hattie Walker, performed with aplomb by Linda Lavin, Stella Deems, and Dimitri Weismann, the maestro of the troupe (local veteran David Sabin).
Right away, we know there’s trouble in the Stone and Plummer marriages: Sally still loves Ben, and Ben doesn’t discourage her. Buddy still loves Sally in spite of himself and Phyllis, frustrated, jaded but still full of leggy, sultry glamour, has given up on her husband.
This, folks, is what we used to call soap opera. The rest, on the other hand, is just plain old razzle dazzle, provided by the designers, Sondheim, and the performers. The subject is lost dreams, but the show IS a dream, especially in the second-act's “Loveland” segment which is like stepping into a Fellini movie where the color on stage is an overpowering red, the numbers, Sondheim at the top of his game, are overpowering, and the feel is like a particular high class carnival.
The show’s fame rests in the songs, in the performers who’ve passed through, in the sheer audaciousness of the concept. This particular production focuses strongly on the relationships, I supposed as it should, without neglecting the brassy glamour. But I suspect it neglects to focus on something fundamental which was the superheated incubator of musical theater where music and looks create a kind of permanent unreality. Sure, past and present intertwine here with the use of younger performers playing the younger selves of the principals, a nice touch that is bittersweet.
That being said, in today’s vernacular, it’s a magnetic show ably kept moving by Director Eric Schaeffer, the Signature Theater impresario who could probably do Sondheim in his sleep, but was obviously wide awake for this one.
Here are some things you don’t forget: Bernadette Peters in full voice, heart and diva singing “Losing My Mind”, one of a series of “Follies” sung by the principals. You won’t forget Maxwell at all as Phyllis, her yearnings, her bitterness—listen to the whip lash belts in “Could I Leave You?”— her fantastic tall, elegant looks. Lavin knocks “Broadway Baby”—a secondary theme here—out of the park, and Terri White does the same for “Who’s That Woman”. Janis Paige, playing the incandescent and forever fabulous Carlotta, does something wicked to the “I’m Still Here” number, often sung defiantly. She makes it a come-on by a woman used to being looked at on that screen, on that stage, when the lights go up or off.
“Follies” is a kind of high, without blacking-out, because you can’t forget what you’ve seen.
“Follies” runs through June 19 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater