Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 12, 2011
Follies Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Music Direction by James Moore. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Kai Harada. Hair & wig design by David Bryan Brown. Make-up design by Joseph Dulude II. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Cast: Elaine Paige, Don Correia, Christian Delcroix, Rosalind Elias, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Lora Lee Gayer, Michael Hayes, Leah Horowitz, Jayne Houdyshell, Florence Lacey, Mary Beth Peil, David Sabin, Kirsten Scott, Frederick Strother, Nick Verina, Susan Watson, Terri White, with Lawrence Alexander, Brandon Bieber, John Carroll, Mathew deGuzman, Sara Edwards, Leslie Donna Flesner, Jenifer Foote, Suzanne Hylenski, Danielle Jordan, Amanda Kloots-Larsen, Joseph Kolinski, Brittany Marcin, Erin N. Moore, Pamela Otterson, Clifton Samuels, Kiira Schmidt, Brian Shepard, Jessica Sheridan, Amos Wolff, Ashley Yeater.
That this is also the issue facing the show's four central characters (Phyllis, Ben, and their long-ago friends Sally and Buddy) is strangely incidental. The main story of this production, which has been staged ("directed" is not the right word) by Eric Schaeffer, isn't what Goldman wrote in his book or Sondheim ornamented with his score: that the marriages of two one-time chorus girls to their stage-door Johnnies are disintegrating at the same time Classic Broadway is. No, it's that no one involved — from Schaeffer to the should-be-terrific cast led by Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Danny Burstein, and Elaine Paige, to whomever suggested that the evening would make sense with the libretto ripped to shreds as if by feral boars — knows what they're doing, why they're doing it, or how to do it well.
To be sure, Follies has never had it easy. The original production, co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, is widely considered one of the most opulent and irreplaceable in theatre history. Since then, everyone's struggled to understand and present it, usually by retaining as much of Sondheim's score as possible while jettisoning as much of Goldman's book as they feel they can get away with. This sometimes results in concerts, like the famous Philharmonic mounting in the 1980s or the Encores! version in 2007, that work musically but not dramatically; it sometimes results in full mountings that place varying emphasis on either the design (Paper Mill's in New Jersey in 1998) or the acting (Roundabout's in 2001), to varying degrees of success or failure. But without Goldman's full book, a bank-busting budget, and incomparable visionaries onstage and off, no one gets all — or even most — of what the show aims for.
What the highest-profile ones typically have in common, however, is that they do try. To be frank, I'm not sure this one does. Rather that Follies Expensive, Follies Light, or Follies Deep, it's Default Follies: the show as a bland sentence capped with a period and not a drop of inspiration to be found. This was evident when this version first opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in May, and was a glittering disaster. It's marginally better now — Schaeffer has pulled out some of the bizarre Brechtian undertones, recast (for the better) two supporting roles, and buffed up his staging — but it's still a colossal, confusing embarrassment that forces the relationships to take a back seat to the musical numbers, which are almost exclusively execrably handled.
One thing at a time. Elemental to the fracturing union of Phyllis (Maxwell) and Ben (Raines) is the notion that it was based on "correctness," the enterprising Phyllis capable of becoming for the upwardly mobile Ben the business partner he needed even if he preferred someone else. That someone was Sally (Peters), who ended up marrying Buddy (Burstein) after her fling with Ben was flung. So when all four collide at the reunion and put together the pieces of the last three decades, we’re supposed to see how the sham of their lives is not that much different than the tired-businessman entertainment with which they were all once so enamored.
But Maxwell, one of New York’s bravest and most intelligent actresses, reads more as Ben’s wisecracking secretary than as an equal partner. Because she doesn’t seem like someone beaten into submission by necessity, she has nothing to rally against as the show unfolds. Nor does it help that Raines reads as a sniffing opera singer rather than someone forced to pay his dues for years of callousness. In Peters's hands, Sally isn't the ultra-clingy, borderline-insane wasteland of feelings she should be, but instead a jittery teeny-bopper anxious to glimpse her favorite matinee idol. Burstein is most successful as the shoved-aside Buddy, but you don't completely believe he’s caught between his one-way love for Sally and the satisfaction he derives from his own affair with someone who’s given him the love Sally has for 30 years reserved for Ben.
With each taking over not just the spotlight but the stage for their numbers and their interstitial clumsy scraps of interstitial dialogue, Schaeffer fails to establish a core for the story. Ben, Phyllis, Sally, and Buddy wander on and off just like everyone else, their contributions no more notable than the Whitmans’ fleeting "Rain on the Roof" or a seemingly disconnected monologue by Dmitri Weismann himself (David Sabin) about the ho-hum nature of time. Such moments work only when they’re treated as elaboration rather than content (a crucial — and usually cut — feature of Goldman's original), and Schaeffer routinely misses that boat. Worse, he torpedoes perhaps the most important of them all, "I'm Still Here," by letting Paige steamroll through it like Genghis Khan on speed. Paige's character, Carlotta, is supposed to be a contemporary of the Main Four who refused to let the past own her the way they did: proof that life needn’t die with childhood dreams, not a dragon threatening to incinerate all in her path.
The one exception is the orchestra. Per the Kennedy Center credo, Jonathan Tunick's sublime original orchestrations are in use, and James Moore conducts his 28 players with aplomb. Listening to them unleash "post-modern" ghost music alongside the old-fashioned brassiness of "Broadway Baby" (Houdyshell's well-intentioned, but underpowered, solo), Phyllis's Jack Cole–inspired "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," or the tap extravaganza "Who's That Woman?" (which, despite Carlyle's indistinct dance, White sells to the rafters), you're reminded of how important musicians and music really are. This lushness compensates for what you lose with Derek McLane's schizophrenic set, which is more haunted house than desolate theater (and whose "Loveland," introduced with help from an inane asbestos curtain, looks thoughtlessly threadbare), and Gregg Barnes's costumes, which are at their best colorful but personality-free evocations of a more adventurous era.
Such is true regarding everything about this production. This is a show that can only work if it's viewed as a whole and worthy piece of theatre, not a grab bag. With so much of the connecting tissue gone, and no visionary guide present to insist the action be a constant progression and not a journey constantly interrupted by irrelevant asides, this Follies is barely worthy of its title. Lovers of the score will understandably not be able to stay away, but when the songs are as devoid of point as they are here, the best players in the pit and the best actors and singers can’t make it work. The energy, excitement, and meaning this revival generates are best summed up in one of Phyllis's countless cut lines: "What this city needs is one more parking lot."