BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
The current revival, while proving the durability of its brilliance, falls short of perfection. As the show is split into two segments, so the audience is likely to be split. between those who saw Follies in one or all of its previous incarnations (more than likely cult enthusiasts of all things Sondheim and this musical in particular) and those who've never seen it. For the first group seeing this new, darker, non-deluxe production will be a nostalgic occasion fraught with comparisons -- probably divided between those disappointed with the leading performers' vocal powers and the production values and those who feels these losses are offset by the way director Matthew Warchus has tapped into the show's heart of darkness. First-time viewers will of course be unhampered by ghosts of Follies past, though they may be too young to appreciate the nostalgia value of some of the great old-timers on the Belasco stage. To whatever group you belong, Follies, is one of those musicals that, no matter what the production, is a must-see if you appreciate a show bursting with inventiveness and unforgettably stirring songs and lyrics.
Mr. Warchus gets the show off to a dramatically effective start by having Dmitri Weismann (Louis Zorich), impresario of long gone extravaganzas, walk down the darkened aisle and onto the stage, flashlight in hand. The time is 1971 and he's hosting a reunion of his former showgirls before the wreckers' ball descends on the theater where the Weismann Follies played from 1918 to 1941. He ascends the metal staircase and the rousing opening number immediately enlivens the dark and dismal theater.
This opening, and Mark Thompson's somber set with Hugh Vanstone's moody lighting, establish an aptly ghost-ridden atmosphere. As the old-old-timers and the middle-aged veterans of the 1941 shows, assemble, so do the ghosts of their younger selves dressed in similar but not identical styles and colors. The cross-cutting between the characters in the show's present and past are what gives this show its special poignancy. The occasional appearances of the young ghosts in the side boxes as well as on the scaffolding at the top of the set's long metal staircase are among director Warchus' more astute directorial touches.
The two leading ladies -- Blythe Danner as the coolly sophisticated Phyllis and Judith Ivey as her erstwhile roommate Sally -- use every trick in their considerable bag of acting skills to compensate for their less than stellar singing. Considering, that their resumes lack musical credits, they don't do badly and Sondheim's fabulous story-telling lyrics carry them through very nicely. Danner's rendition of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" during the second act's Loveland sequence is terrific. Her look of delight and slight discomfort when she's lifted high in the air by the Ensemble adds her own special something to this showstopper. Their younger selves, Erin Dilly as Young Phyllis and Lauren Ward as Young Sally, are musical theater pros and their strengths as singers and dancers somehow underscores the what was and what is theme.
In the case of the males (Gregory Harrison- Ben, Treat Williams-Buddy) in the gone sour marriages, the voices are better than the acting. This is especially true of Gregory Harrison 's Ben, who's married to Phyllis and still the unobtainable object of Sally's desires. Their younger counterparts (Joey Sorge as Young Buddy and Richard Roland as Young Ben), are, like Young Phyllis and Young Sally, accomplished musical performers.
The older character who seems most comfortable in her current life is show girl-turned-film actress Carlotta Champion. As played by Polly Bergen she's also this production's all-around standout. Her rendition of "I'm Still Here" is better than satisfying. The way the other figures fade off the stage during this number is another example of dynamic direction. Alas, there are as many instances when things are more static and the people at this party seem to be standing around waiting for the director to raise his baton and get things moving.
The various senior party goers -- Betty Garrett, Jane White, Joan Roberts, Marge Champion and Donald Saddler -- bring the authentic aura of "legends" to the stage. Betty Garrett as Hattie belts out a rousing "Broadway Babies." The "Who's That Woman?" number which features a whole chorus line of these aging but still zestful ladies (plus their ghosts) is as touching as anything you're likely to see for a while. With the exception of this number and a few others, however, Kathleen Marshall's choreography is disappointingly mundane.
My own major disappointment was that on the night I attended Marge Champion was out. Since Marge attends the same aerobics class as I do (I usually stand right in back of her, a perfect position to keep me in step during our attempts to put some Broadway Baby oomph into our fitness routines). Naturally, I was especially eager to see her out of her sweats and in the gossamer gown with the handkerchief edged skirt designed for her by Theoni V. Aldredge (the rest of whose costumes are a mix of hits and misses). Even though this Follies, is hardly the best ever, it won't be a hardship to listen to those marvelous tunes a second time.