Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Follies in Concert"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


book by James Goldman
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
originally produced on Broadway by Harold Prince
presented by special arrangement by Cameron Macintosh

directed by Spiro Veloudos
musical direction by Dale Rieling
“Who’s That Woman?” choreography by Ilyse Robbins

Dimitri Weismann ... .Paul D. Farwell
Phyllis Rogers Stone ... Maryann Zschau
Benjamin Stone…Len Cariou
Roscoe…Brad D. Peloquin
Sally Durant Plummer ... Leigh Barrett
Buddy Plummer ... Frank Gayton
Stella Deems ... Paula Markowicz
Carlotta Campion ... Bobbie Steinbach
Young Buddy ... Josh Grisetti
Young Ben ... Brent Reno
Young Sally ... Stephanie Biernbaum
Young Phyllis ... Caroline DeLima
Emily Whitman ... Deb Poppel
Theodore Whitman ... Frank Aronson
Solange LaFitte ... Kathy St. George
Hattie Walker ... Mary Callanan
Heidi Schiller ... Barbara Morash
Young Heidi ... Liane Grasso

Showgirls ... .Jeanine Belcastro, Rachel Cantor, Kate DeLima, Heather Hannon, Jennifer Huth

Ensemble ... Robert DeVivo, Dan Giles, Drew Poling, Sean F. Roper, Bill Stambaugh

Understudy for Mr. Cariou ... Drew Poling


Violin 1 … Shandy Philips; Julia Park
Violin 2 … Joyce Leonard; Sarah Wilfong
Viola … Maija Teigen-Hangartner
Cello … Matt Pierce
Bass … Matt Ambrose
Reed 1 … Kevin Ritter
Reed 2 … Maeve Lien
Reed 3 … Mark Margolies
Reed 4 … Brian Mackintosh
Reed 5 … Dave Sass
Trombone 1 … Wesley Hopper
Trombone 2 … Harlan Feinstein
Trombone 3 … Stephen Shires
Trumpet 1 … Daniel Duncan
Trumpet 2 … Tom Stafford
Trumpet 3 … John Smialek
French Horn … Steven Biagini
Keyboard … Beth Stafford
Percussion … Scott Brenner
Harp … Deborah Feld-Sacisiewicz

Overture Productions’ FOLLIES IN CONCERT is flawed but is still an Event: Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical about former showgirls and their spouses and the juxtaposition of past and present, sweet illusions versus bitter truths is not often performed in full production (it would break many a theatre company’s bank, for starters); the Overture concert is also, by and large, a joyous celebration of Boston-based talent.

Mr. Sondheim had already found his voice/sound with COMPANY (1970); with FOLLIES (1971), he looked, Janus-like, at the American Musical, saying hello and farewell, simultaneously, and he was given a one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-duplicated Harold Prince/Michael Bennett super-production, lavish and hallucinatory (you can scale down SWEENEY TODD, but not this one), peopled with Stars from the various eras that FOLLIES celebrated/analyzed. I saw that production soon after it opened (I even talked the ogre-like stage manager into letting me step onto Boris Aronson’s haunted set, afterwards); many associated with that production are now dead and gone and I myself am fast approaching the half-century mark but fragments of the original FOLLIES still play on in my mind-theatre: the Winter Garden curtain rising on a drum roll to reveal a half-destroyed theatre with a tall, ostrich-like ghost of a show girl drifting about the rubble; the show-stopping “Who’s That Woman?” where the aging ones join their younger selves in a kaleidoscopic war dance; Ben’s top-hat-and-tails nightmare when the stage begins to shift and erupt; and, especially, Florence Klotz’s costumes for the “Loveland” sequence and the four Follies-like self-revelations (to quote Ms. Klotz: “I wish the costumes still existed; Hal [Prince] wanted to do a movie version of the show so we put them in storage at 20th Century Fox. But, somehow, they all disappeared…”). The Broadway production reaped numerous awards yet closed in the red (nostalgia-seeking audiences didn’t “get” it), and Mr. Sondheim’s breathtaking score, a combination of pastiches and groundbreakers, was not recorded in its entirety with the original cast (THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, which beat out FOLLIES for the Best Musical Tony Award, was given a two-record setting ­ who performs that show today?). A stripped-down, all-star concert version ­ FOLLIES IN CONCERT ­ was one singular sensation of the mid-80s and led to rebirth productions and more complete recordings; I will assume it is also the concert version now being performed in Boston. James Goldman’s insight-heavy libretto has been reduced to dialogue links between numbers and there are no scenic shifts into fantasy for self-hating Ben, fire-and-ice Phyllis, two-timing Buddy and torch-carrying Sally; without their deepening criss-crosses and the supporting visuals, FOLLIES IN CONCERT may strike newcomers as rambling and loosely plotted (but with great songs); it pays to read a synopsis beforehand, if not Mr. Goldman’s libretto, and create the spectacle in your own mind-theatres.

The Overture production, directed by Spiro Veloudos, could use more polish and better costumes ­ the chorus girls’ outfits are not even Velveeta-quality ­ and is performed with scripts in hand; fortunately, Mr. Sondheim’s songs have been memorized and the audience is treated to eyes that suddenly come alive, faces that flash all of the emotions Mr. Sondheim demands from them and, in Leigh Barrett’s moving Sally, the occasional tear. “Who’s That Woman?” is staged, tap dance and all, by Ilyse Robbins; even in its modified form, it remains the showstopper that it is; “The Right Girl” and the other Big One, “The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie” are bereft of movement, even bodies, for much of their playing time. Pity --- but it twice allows the orchestra to shine in the instrumentals.

The evening’s selling point has been Len Cariou who created the roles of Frederick (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC) and Sweeney Todd; Mr. Cariou, still a fine figure of a man, contributes little save his name and the chance to look upon a Sondheim performer past his prime; ironically, he becomes this FOLLIES’ ghost (Mr. Cariou rarely glances up from the printed page; the others seem to be carrying scripts mainly for appearances’ sake). Leigh Barrett, Maryann Zschau, Bobbi Steinbach, Kathy St. George and Mary Callanan are the concert’s real jewels. I continue to speak of Ms. Leigh’s sunshine; here, it is filtered as Indian summer’s slanting rays, revealing the character’s neurosis (an existence based on unrequited love) through warm, friendly desperation ­ even Sally’s troubling exchanges with Buddy are gentle-edged ­ that desperation comes to stunning full flower with “Losing My Mind”, one of the loveliest things Mr. Sondheim ever wrote, and Ms. Barrett puts all torch songs to bed with her rendition. Ms. Zschau’s Phyllis is more the Hostess with the Mostes’ than a Showgirl turned to Snowgirl but is great fun, anyway; brass seems to be Ms. Zschau’s natural metal ­ here, it runs from the molten (“Could I Leave You?”) to the burnished (“The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie”). Ms. Barrett provides the poignancy; Ms. Zschau hands out the nostalgia: her singing voice/style is a wonderful throwback to the slick, brash Broadway cast recordings from the 40s to the 60s (I would love to hear her deliver “When the Tall Man Talks” from WHOOP-UP or the title song from I HAD A BALL). Ms. Steinbach, her vocal chords rubbed with steel wool, uses her singing limitations to reinforce her I-don’t-give-a-damn-how-I-sound delivery of Carlotta’s pre-anthem “I’m Still Here” and reaps an ovation to rival Ms. Barrett’s, and Ms. St. George’s delightful Solange, a petite chanteuse with built-in klieg lights, is pitted against Ms. Callanan’s warm, sexy orca of a Hattie who performs “Broadway Baby” without a trace of Camp (calling Mama Rose, further down the road….?). In the men’s division, Frank Gayton doesn’t get to catch fire until his eleven o’clock “Buddy’s Blues” (he slouches about, mostly, looking hangdog), Brad D. Peloquin unwraps a lovely, lyrical voice to open the show with “Beautiful Girls” and Frank Aronson in the wee role of Theodore Whitman is pleasingly Catskills-ian.

It would be nice should FOLLIES IN CONCERT lead to an actual production with most of this cast but you would be wise not to wait for that miracle but, rather, attend one (or both) of the remaining Overture performances ­ even in its stripped-down form, FOLLIES remains a towering achievement.

"Follies in Concert" (14-22 November)
John Hancock Hall, 200 Berkeley Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 931-2787

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide