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Follies

Around 4:00 on Sunday, Angela and her fiancé, Adam, came over to the house and we ordered up some cheeseburgers since it was far too nasty outside to be wandering around.

We sat down in the living room and watched a little Dukes of Hazard and cackled for hours. Can you even believe that horrible show is still in syndication? Can you believe that it's still running in France? Yep, they've even dubbed it and I must confess that I did watch a few episodes while I was there. That's just how bad French television is; they'll show anything if it's American. Now, my favourite show there was Droles Des Dames; that's Charlie's Angels to you and me and I must say that I always looked forward to that one. You must admit, Charlie's Angels really was brilliant camp.

At 6:15 we ran out in the rain and snagged a cab for the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Forty-Second Street to catch the 6:30 train for Millburn's Paper Mill Playhouse. We ran through the terminal and bought our $5.60 tickets and ran downstairs and waited in line. Luckily, the bus was late as we didn't know what we'd do in Millburn for an hour before the show started. The bus fumes took me right back to my childhood when I'd take the Greyhound to visit my grandmother in Savannah. Odd how a scent can make you wax nostalgic, don't you think? Well, the bus ride out there wasn't that bad and as a matter of fact we had fun with it.

In thirty-five minutes we were in the heart of Millburn, New Jersey. The rain had stopped and we enjoyed looking at all the dogwood trees and daffodils on the three block stroll to the theatre. The charming well-kept middle class homes lined the streets and the blue hairs filled the lobby of the theatre. We had about twenty minutes before the curtain so we got a cocktail and went outside. It was so quiet out there and you could see so much sky, which is something you forget exists when you live in Manhattan.

We walked up the stairs to the "First Mezzanine" and took our seats. Newsflash! It's actually the balcony. They call their first mezzanine "Box Seats" that are nothing more than a few seats and a low wall separating them. And while I'm at it, when will theatres stop calling their balconies "mezzanines"? Really, it is so deceiving. But enough of my bitching, let's talk about Follies. With a darkly radiant score by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman, and a wonderfully starry cast with impressive credits, why is Paper Mill Playhouse's production of Follies so underwhelming? Could it be due in part to a brief two week rehearsal or too short a preview, or is it Robert Johanson's direction? I'm inclined to believe the latter.

When Follies first opened on Broadway in 1971 at The Winter Garden Theatre it garnered seven Tony awards, including best music/lyrics (Stephen Sondheim) and best director (Harold Prince, Michael Bennett). It also garnered a throng of devotees. Some twenty-eight years later, Paper Mill Playhouse is the first in the New York area to revive what many refer to as Sondheim's masterpiece. Sondheim himself was even at rehearsals assisting the production, which fanned the flames of anticipation surrounding the revival. Soon the cavalcade of Sondheim followers, including myself, began racing to New Jersey by any method necessary to catch the production first hand.

Sondheim's score is possibly his best with such ingenious lyrics as, "...and the evenings of martyred looks, cryptic sighs, sullen glares from those injured eyes. Leaves the whips with the sting, jokes with a sneer, passionless lovemaking once a year." Or, "The sun comes up; I think about you. The coffee cup; I think about you. I want you so, it's like I'm losing my mind." With his haunting anthems of despair, faded dreams and Autumnal epiphanies, Sondheim proves with his Follies score that he is without a doubt the preeminent metrical genius of our time.

Withered chimeras of former Weisman Follies girls (re; Ziegfeld) meet some thirty years later to bask once again in the limelight before their old theatre is demolished. Among the decayed ruins they re-encounter the apparitions of their former selves and are forced to confront both their demons and erstwhile paramours. Sally's attempt is to re-ignite her old flame, Ben, now married to her friend Phyllis, until calamity ensues and old rivals are reprised.

James Goldman's book is virtually plotless with the exception of the aforementioned tenuous story line, leaving the performers and director to bear the burden of making the show work. It is simply not enough to have a wonderful score and cast to make a production soar, you must have proper direction and without a strong book, you're left with a musical review of sorts. And that is exactly what Follies is all about.

The production is a constant La Ronde of former showgirls reprising the numbers that had once made them famous with a satiric twist. The show stopping arias succeed as sheer entertainment but fall flat on an empathetic level due to a lack of character development.

However, the performances are splendid albeit a bit hammy in the gesticulation department, due in part to Johanson's inept direction. Anne Miller (Carlotta Campion) gives a wonderful performance ripe with irony in the show stopper "I'm Still Here". Dee Hoty (Phyllis Rogers Stone) is superbly cynical in her delivery of about the only number with direct reference to the plot, "Could I Leave You". And she soars with seductive grace in the strip number, "Ah, But Underneath". Donna McKechnie (Sally Durant Plummer) is appropriately mournful with her rendition of "Losing My Mind". Liliane Montevecchi is as agile and lithe as ever.

Robert Johanson's direction is probably the production's weakest link. His segues are jarring and the aura of the show is far too blithe. His maladroit "vision" is about as delicious as eating ice cream in a sand storm. Michael Anania's third rate proscenium of deco goddesses is a visual assault as are his hideous oversized vases filled with overflowing plumes.

The strongest aesthetic contributions are Gregg Barnes' (Side Show), gorgeous Erte styled showgirl costumes. Some of the costumes seemed like odd choices, however, I was informed that Mr. Barnes had little control due to an overbearing, controlling director.

Follies is a delicious souffle that falls flat. The ingredients are certainly palatable and the recipe is perfection. Seems as if the chef is to blame for the floundered dessert.

After the show we were standing outside trying to figure out what we would do with our forty-five minutes before the bus came. Angela spotted Jim Corti (Houdini from Ragtime) whom she'd worked with at The Goodman in Chicago. He was delightful and we all chatted for about ten minutes until we bid him good- night and went in search of a cocktail.

Let me tell you that Millburn is a ghost town on a Sunday night. We searched all over the place until we finally found a place open. "Charlie Brown's Steak House" had closed their dining room but thank God they were still serving cocktails. We sat at a little table in the bar and sipped our drinks for fifteen minutes then headed back out and got in line for the bus.

On the way over I noticed a bagel store that had their bagels on the sidewalk in huge crates with the steam rising. Oh, they looked so tempting and it was so chilly and the bakers were inside and well, they were delicious. We knoshed on our bagels all the way back to the city.

Lord, we didn't get back until Midnight and were exhausted, so we went our separate ways and I came home and went to bed.

In closing, if you're a die-hard Follies fan then take the bus to New Jersey and give it a shot. If you love the score and are skeptical about what I just told you about the production then save your ass a trip to Jersey and pop in your Follies original cast recording. If you do head out there then remember that the only place open past 10:30 on a Sunday is "Charlie Brown's Steakhouse" on Main Street. And if you find yourself hungry, cold, and see a steamy hot bagel crate then snag one. Just think, that town of Millburn owes ya one.

Oh, I'm not done yet. I received a demo tape last week from Robert Stempin's new musical, Dearest Teacher, which is still in its embryonic stage and I have to tell I'm very impressed with a few of the songs, particularly, "I Thank You" and "Be A Believer." The premise is about Helen Keller's teacher and I love the whole idea of it. Remember, you heard it here first.

Next Thursday I'll tell you all about Liam Neeson's big business in The Judas Kiss, so stay tuned.

Cheers!


See you Thursday...

Christina D'Angelo
TinasNYC@aol.com


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