nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 14, 2011
Eric Schaeffer's new revival of Follies, on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre, is as chipper a production of this dark and melancholy musical as you can imagine. Like last season's hit revival of Anything Goes, it feels chock-a-block full of show-stoppers, and even though some of the big songs ("Could I Leave You?", "Losing My Mind") are on the sad or angry side, the feel-good energy never sags.
Also like Anything Goes, this Follies feels tremendously dated to me, from the pastiche references to musical styles of long ago that hardly anyone on or off stage could possibly have witnessed first hand, to the catalog of social history inside the great song "I'm Still Here," whose lyric is now as quaintly archaic as Cole Porter's lists of superlatives in "You're the Top." (Beebe's bathysphere? Dionne babies? Major Bowes? How does the under-40 crowd make sense of it?)
Most fundamentally, though, Follies reminded me of another unnecessary revival, the recent Odd Couple. In that show, you may recall, eternally boyish Matthew Broderick and youthfully naughty Nathan Lane tried on roles made famous by the eternally middle-aged Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (and the similarly mature Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau before them). Here we have baby-faced and baby-voiced 63-year-old Bernadette Peters seeming to be too young to convince us that she's a 49-year-old matron from Phoenix, while Jayne Houdyshell as a grandmother in a sensible shoes still delivers a powerhouse star turn singing her signature tune from four decades ago and Terri White leads half-a-dozen presumably over-the-hill ex-showgirls in a long and lively (and terrifically executed) tap routine. One of the latter-day chorines says she hasn't danced in 30 years and another complains that this number winded her when she was 19, but we never believe them. They're all in great shape, because unlike the characters that James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim created in 1971, these ladies haven't particularly aged much since their heydays—they're all in grand shape, looking and singing and dancing just fine. Since the point of Follies is that these characters are struggling with casting aside their youthful dreams and delusions, all this sprightliness makes for a pretty glaring disconnect. Schaeffer's Follies, while insistently entertaining throughout, isn't finally about anything. I would so much rather have seen these folks expend their efforts on something new and relevant.
I've glossed over the premise of Follies, so I'll come to that now: It's 1971, and we're at a reunion of ex-Follies performers, gathered for a final party (thrown by impressario Dimitri Weismann, a Ziegfeldian gentleman who produced opulent revues in this theater every year between the great wars) before the building is torn down. The main characters are two married couples, Ben and Phyllis Stone (he's a rich, famous diplomat and she's his sleek, sophisticated wife; they're bitterly unhappy and dead inside after the love drained from their union long ago), and Buddy and Sally Plummer (he's a traveling salesman, she's a mopey housewife suffering from empty nest syndrome and regret over a lost love from her youth). Sally's lost love is in fact Ben, and she's come to this reunion to see if she can rekindle a romance that, as we discover, may only have existed in her mind. Phyllis is here to try to remember what she wanted when she was an enthusiastic and happy young woman.
As the foursome's story plays out—with flashbacks to their younger selves from 30 years before—we meet others who have gathered at this reunion, who perform some of their hit songs and share bits of random gossip about their lives. Ghosts of everyone's former selves hover around the edges. Schaeffer does almost nothing to connect the ghosts to the present-day people or the cameo Follies performers to the central characters of Phyllis, Ben, Sally, and Buddy; and so this production feels like a scrawny but well-intended soap opera nestled within an opulent musical revue, as our protagonists (about whom we ultimately get very little information) wrestle their demons and youthful delusions while a parade of grand, old-timey show-stopping musical numbers plays on around them.
Highlights include Elaine Paige's fierce and exciting interpretation of "I'm Still Here," Danny Burstein's fine performance as Buddy (especially in "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" and "Buddy's Blues"), Gregg Barnes's mostly terrific costumes (particularly the Erte-inspired creations for the ghostly showgirls), and Jonathan Tunick's glorious orchestrations of Sondheim's wistful, varied score, here musical directed by James Moore, played by a full-sized orchestra, and sounding just fabulous (the gorgeous, haunting prologue is still swimming in my head).
Ron Raines sings Ben's great song "The Road You Didn't Take" better than anyone I've heard do it before, but he brings little else to the role. Jan Maxwell looks swell as Phyllis and acts the role reasonably well, though I didn't feel she took us on much of a journey; her vocal and dance limitations let her down, though, on "Could I Leave You?" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." Peters is badly miscast as Sally, and doesn't even sing her big songs particularly effectively; the effort just shows and shows without any payoff.
But it all goes down smoothly, which on the one hand is a good thing for a big-budget Broadway musical to do; but on the other hand it seems precisely not what the creators of Follies ever wanted their show to do. The tension between the long-lost charms of youth and the stark realities of today are intended, I think, to make Follies a provoking and aching experience. But this revival has no tension; it's just a nostalgia fest. Swell, but not what I went to the theater for.