The mirror might not be fully cracked at the City Center Encores! production of Follies, but oh what a sad, fractured reflection gazes out at us from the stage. Perhaps the most mythical of modern classics, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s revered glimpse beneath the sequined remnants of love, show-biz, and America itself has seldom seemed more a victim of its own antiquation than it does in this bedraggled concert presentation.
It’s been directed - if that’s the word - and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who hasn’t so much staged the text as he’s staged the expectations (or most of them) audiences will bring with them between now and the final performance Monday night. His goal wasn’t to reclaim a lost treasure (Follies has never been lost) but to serve as Grand Marshal over the first bona fide Encores! Event that wants you to think it’s just a plain-old Encores! show. At that he, or any reasonable human, could not possibly fail.
While Encores! once packed its seasons with dimly recalled titles like Allegro, One Touch of Venus, and Bloomer Girl, it’s now gotten around to the musical so obscure it’s had only five major mountings in and around New York following its 1971 premiere and produced a scant four cast recordings. Some lip-service was given to performing the complete original score with the original-sized orchestra, something that could be said of neither the high-profile 1998 Paper Mill production (which toasted Broadway as if it were an MGM lot) or that 2001 Roundabout revival (which, despite innovative direction and powerful performances, lacked the physical and musical extravagance most associate with Follies).
This has not proven true, but no matter for now - this production has already proved incredibly popular, and will no doubt go down as the huge financial hit Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel doubtlessly craved. So one suspects we’re not intended to notice (or comment on) Nicholaw’s work evincing not even the faintest essence of what the show is or what it means. But setting aside Follies’s vaunted history and memories (real or inherited) of the lavish inaugural production 36 years ago, one is not hard-pressed to realize that Nicholaw’s take on the material, like so many of the characters it documents, is dead inside.
Under the best of circumstances, this story of four refugees of the iconic Weismann Follies, who reunite with former faded stars at its dusty home on the eve of its 1971 demolition, is a tricky proposition. There’s no way to simplify the story of Ben and Phyllis Stone and Buddy and Sally Plummer, who never came to terms with their feelings and ambitions 30 years earlier (most importantly, Ben disposed of adoring-but-plain Sally for the more socially viable Phyllis) and are only now seeing how the right or convenient choices might have been the wrong ones.
As the reunion progresses, and the quartet’s problems become increasingly intertwined with those of the ghosts literally and figuratively haunting them, the couples’ declarations of passion, pain, or independence are interrupted by songs ostensibly drawn from Weismann’s catalog, and which materialize to comment on the unforgiving nature of time. The tug-of-war between reality and fantasy continues until it’s impossible to distinguish the two, and all four - along with their 30-years-younger selves - are sucked into their own personal Follies to resolve matters once and for all.
For all this to work, you must be personally invested in the characters’ pulsing needs to undo their hastily chosen pasts. Yet all of Goldman’s carefully crafted scenes (many of which have been severely edited) establishing these complexities are staged and performed here with the surface-skimming brevity of rehearsals for a college acting seminar. The performers - Victor Garber (Ben), Donna Murphy (Phyllis), Michael McGrath (Buddy), and Victoria Clark (Sally) - are not to be faulted; heavy issues like these can’t be easily assimilated in the frantic rehearsal time Encores! productions by necessity receive.
There are plenty of grand set pieces: the time-twisting “Who’s That Woman?” (led by a characteristically eccentric Jo Anne Worley), in which the elderly chorus girls and their ethereal young selves recreate a cherished showstopper; a series of spots for aged specialty artists like Anne Rogers, Robert E. Fitch, Yvonne Constant, and Lucine Amara to revisit their own gone-but-not-forgotten youths; and the queen of been-there-done-that anthems, “I’m Still Here,” puzzlingly sung by a less-than-glamorous Christine Baranski as though she were swallowing a pizza whole. But despite the polished, pastiche gleam of Sondheim’s spot-on compositions (given adequate if unexceptional life by Eric Stern’s musical direction), and the vital roles they play in unlocking this magical mystery of a show, these numbers have never replaced the central foursome at the heart of Follies.
Without those relationships, however, there’s little Follies to speak of. Garber’s a consistently annoyed gadabout with no tenderness to fake, even in his achingly beautiful duet with Sally, “Too Many Mornings”; Victoria Clark is vague desperation that nonsensically gives way, in her Follies number, to the angriest (and least effective) “Losing My Mind” I’ve ever heard; and McGrath’s all sad-sack with no grasp on the angry betrayal that ought to propel him through his whirlwind second-act numbers.
Only Murphy, armed with brittle, acerbic wit, comes close to finding a real soul within Phyllis’s decaying package. (Murphy herself, however, looks amazingly enticing throughout.) Her sexy breakout opportunity, the potentially fierce “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” for the dueling halves of Phyllis’s psyche, is squandered by cuts that reduce it to an afterthought. Other excisions occur in Buddy’s anguished “The Right Girl” and “Who’s That Woman?” and changed lyrics in the climactic “Loveland” raise the question of why Encores! bothered to trumpet its concerns about the score’s fidelity in the first place.
Still, one moment does make you glad for Follies’s otherwise premature return. Mimi Hines, perhaps best known for replacing Barbra Streisand in the original Funny Girl, rips into “Broadway Baby” with the comic ferocity resembling that of a lion at dinnertime. Never overselling and never underselling, she sings of her dreams of stardom and the rocky road she’s traveling with a traditional grace bearing a post-modern edge.
In her few moments in the spotlight, she builds a bridge between the musical theatre lost and the musical theatre yet to come, allowing you to feel hope for the future of the art even while mourning the moribund art Follies so soberly chronicles. Just don’t be surprised if, through your laughs, you also find yourself lamenting Encores! - that might just be an even sadder loss.
New York City Center Encores!® 2007 Season
Photo 1 - Jo Anne Worley and the Ladies