Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Follies"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


"FOLLIES"

book by James Goldman
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
directed by Julianne Boyd
choreographed by Lara Teeter
musical direction by Darren Cohen

Dimitri ‘Rosco’ Weismann … Gordon Stanley
Sally Durant Plummer … Kim Crosby
Stella Deems … Diane J. Findlay
Sam Deems … Marvin Einhorn
Hattie Walker … Diane Houghton
Solange La Fitte … Joy Franz
Heidi Schiller … Marni Nixon
Emily Whitman … Natalie Mosco
Theodore Whitman … David Young
Carlotta Campion … Donna McKechnie
Phyllis Rogers Stone … Leslie Denniston
Benjamin Stone … Jeff McCarthy
Buddy Plummer … Lara Teeter
Young Phyllis … Nili Bassman
Young Sally … Elise Molinelli
Young Carlotta … Rose O’Hara
Young Ben … Eric Ulloa
Young Buddy … John Patrick
Kevin … Jason Johnson
Young Heidi … Michelle Dyer
“Margie” … Bettina Tyler-Lewis
“Sally” … Rose O’Hara

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ensemble:

Michelle Dyer; Jason Johnson; Carissa Lopez;
Rose O’Hara; Steve Parmenter; Bettina Tyler-Lewis

Orchestra:

Piano / Conductor … Darren Cohen
Assistant Musical Director / Keyboards … Brian Usifer
Woodwinds … Stephanie Long
Trumpet … Jeff Stevens
Trombone … Dave Wampler
Percussion … Dennis Arcano
Violin … Miriam Shapiro
Bass … Jenny Hersch

One of the few Broadway shows that I saw in my youth was the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s FOLLIES in 1971, four months after it had opened --- it was a one-of-a-kind experience that blew many a person’s mind, back then, as well as expanding the frontiers of the American Musical. The Barrington Stage Company’s production, the first full-scale mounting I’ve seen since then, shows how Time, Death and Economy have all had a hand in reducing a landmark to a bittersweet entertainment.

The original FOLLIES, for all its obsession with the past, was firmly locked into its own time and place: America was still in its Vietnam nightmare and undergoing various social revolutions and FOLLIES, like its companion-piece COMPANY the season before, threw a spotlight on the institution of marriage, focusing on Phyllis and Sally, two former showgirls, and Ben and Buddy, the stage-door johnnies they married with resentful results, all around; a first-and-last reunion within a decaying Ziegfeld-like theatre serves as their symbolic battleground. Both America and COMPANY have since been revised so that the latter is now warmly familiar instead of cold and harsh whereas FOLLIES is as dated as the spectacle it simultaneously praises and buries --- FOLLIES said goodbye to the Old Musical and heralded the New one but since 9/11 the crossroads have been redefined with entertainment values slowly replacing dark introspections and with the aging Flower Children who once distrusted anyone over 30 now declaring that life is not over after 50; thus, FOLLIES’ supporting oldsters now reap the loudest applause for their own numbers and make bearable the grievances of its four unsympathetic leads. (When the original “Beautiful Girls” number ended in its line-up, the tableau was brave but sad --- the underlying tragedy being that these women were no longer young --- when the Barrington actresses line up, each one brimming with joie de vivre, their tableau is joyous and life-affirming.)

There are other datings, as well. FOLLIES is considered Mr. Sondheim’s show, first and foremost, and his score is, to me, his best and most heartfelt effort (his similar showbiz pastiches in ASSASINS, twenty years later, reveal an artist who has long since painted himself into a bleak, despairing corner) and if I had to rescue only one Sondheim number from a sinking ship it would be Sally’s torch song “Losing My Mind” where she comes to realize that the man she wanted to marry all along never really loved her. (Remember torch songs, with Woman as Victim? How times have changed!) But FOLLIES also belongs to director Harold Prince who, inspired by a photo of Gloria Swanson amidst the rubble of the Roxy Theatre, transformed a backstage murder-mystery entitled “The Girls Upstairs” into the first Proustian Musical, to choreographer and co-director Michael Bennett whose stunning “Who’s That Woman?” has been cited as the best musical number of all time (from what I remember of it, I would agree), and to the design team of Boris Aaronson, Florence Klotz and Tharon Musser for their breathtaking sets, lights and costumes (only librettist James Goldman is the orphan in the snow, ostracized for his downbeat, plotless book). Indeed, the Prince-Bennett production would break the bank of today’s theatres save for the major opera houses (FOLLIES ran for over a year, won numerous awards, got a cast recording --- albeit a truncated one --- yet lost its entire investment); to quote Ethan Mordden, “…what Prince, Bennett, Aronson, Musser and … Klotz created in that original FOLLIES was at once astonishing and heartbreaking: the perfect production, never to be duplicated and thus, after the original run ends, a reproach to any future staging attempts.” Then there was the original cast composed of old-timers from the Follies era, the still-Golden Age of Hollywood and television --- much of FOLLIES’ box office allure came from a deceptive nostalgia over seeing once-famous celebrities on display only to have them commenting upon their own personas that ran parallel to those of their characters. Had FOLLIES continued its original run, similar performers could and would have been substituted; nowadays, such performers are by and large deceased as are many in the Prince-Bennett cast and when a show loses its autobiographical link it loses its immediacy, its Event-ness, if you will, and becomes a mere show no matter how excellent. A CHORUS LINE and THE LARAMIE PROJECT have suffered a similar fate and any actress who takes on Norma Desmond in Mr. Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of SUNSET BOULEVARD cannot help paling alongside the mythic quality that Ms. Swanson brought to her film portrayal. All subsequent productions of FOLLIES are un-legendary; Time, Death and Economy have seen to that.

Even if there were a theatre company foolhardy enough to recreate the Broadway production down to its last bugle bead and to populate it with enough star-names to make FOLLIES must-see entertainment once again, you still would not be seeing the original version for, like COMPANY, there has been some rejuvenation --- Mr. Goldman has combined several minor characters, trimmed down the ensembles and brought in the old gals to trample down the moving conclusion, and Mr. Sondheim has swapped original songs for newer ones that went into the London revival, some time ago. Only Phyllis’ “Ah, But Underneath” has been retained, here, overriding “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” (frankly, I found the new number a snooze despite its striptease that would have been more at home in burlesque). I gather that this current version has become the official FOLLIES, complete with an intermission that now rends the accelerating revelations; said trimmings may do wonders for a theatre’s bank account but also contradicts the musical’s nature: FOLLIES, if nothing else, must overwhelm in its sounds and visuals; the more you reduce its power, the more you lessen its achievement, and newcomers may wonder what was so groundbreaking about the show in the first place. (What are the chances of PACIFIC OVERTURES being revised to include a little thing called Pearl Harbor?)

Still the Barrington production is beautifully sung throughout and boasts a few Names in its cast and its Loveland sequence is economically put over. There are disappointments: Julianne Boyd’s direction is devoid of mood so that the evening is fragmented rather than cinematic and Paul Miller’s lighting is so lacking in atmosphere that it takes awhile for the audience to realize that FOLLIES’ youngsters are ghosts; “Who’s That Woman?” becomes a mere kick line instead of the stunning circle-within-a-circle that Mr. Bennett brought to it; “The Right Girl” is dully choreographed and performed by Lara Teeter (Gene Nelson, the original Buddy, ended the number with a somersault in mid-air and landed in a kneeling position); Leslie Denniston lacks feline authority as Phyllis though she is genuinely touching in her final embrace, and Jeff McCarthy’s Ben is handsome but hollow (during Phyllis’ “Could I Leave You?”, Mr. McCarthy stands, head down and with hands clasped before him, like a chastened schoolboy; his move that prompts “Just wait a goddam minute!” is purely mechanical). On the plus side, the “Folly of Youth” sequence is cleverly staged; Kim Crosby is a sweet, ripened ingénue as Sally and though she lacks a lower register for “Losing My Mind” her rendition is nevertheless affecting (Mr. Miller craftily ends Ms. Crosby’s solo in a dwindling spotlight fading to black) and, thanks to the rubber-limbed Mr. Teeter, assisted by Bettina Tyler-Lewis and Rose O’Hara, “The-God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” is the production's one number in sync with the Messrs. Prince and Bennett’s vision. Diane Houghton, Diane J. Findlay and Marni Nixon (paired with an amazing sound-alike, Michelle Dyer) are sure-fire delights in their sure-fire numbers but Donna McKechnie, the late Mr. Bennett’s partner onstage and off, is cute and coy as the clear-eyed, worldly Carlotta --- Ms. McKechnie is not one of Nature’s singers but her still-flowing moments in “Who’s That Woman?” are her own tribute to herself when she first took Broadway by storm over three decades ago. Michael Anania contributes an appropriately grey, damp-looking setting that takes on added poignancy following the recent destruction of Boston’s historic Gaiety Theatre (a true loss to Beantown) and Alejo Vietti’s Loveland costumes are carefully opulent. Darren Cohen conducts an eight-piece orchestra whose sound, though good, is limited (e.g. there are no harp strings for the sudden surge of emotion in “In Buddy’s Eyes”).

FOLLIES still demands to be seen at least once and the Barrington production is a good place for beginners but the FOLLIES you will see, here or elsewhere, will not, cannot be what Broadway audiences saw in 1971. SHOW BOAT and OKLAHOMA! can and have been cast and recast but the true FOLLIES exists in photographs, programs, its incomplete cast recording and memories. That is what makes the theatre the rose of the arts: the bloom is the performance unfolding, live, before you; when the show closes --- ah, there’s the thorn.

"Follies" (23 June-16 July)
BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY
Consolati Performing Arts Center, 491 Berkshire School Road, SHEFFIELD, MA
1 (413) 528-8888

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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