Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THEATER: Follies

They don't make musicals like Follies any more. In fact, even in the unassailable repertoire of Stephen Sondheim, there is hardly anything like it. I mean, a musical about two married couples returning to the theater of their youth on the verge of its destruction, and reflecting on the ghosts -- literally depicted -- of their past regrets? A musical which spends a large part of the second act lost in a fantasia called "Loveland" that's filled with the dancing vaudevillian embodiments of their follies? (Imagine if Book of Mormon's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" went on for another five songs.) Yes, the show's unbalanced in tone and a bit redundant in message, as if Sondheim distrusted his own clarion instincts, and yes, it might be better if some of the regretful numbers didn't seem quite so extraneous and revue-like ("Ah, Paris!" and "One More Kiss" leap to mind). But if ever a show could justify its own youthful, exuberant mistakes, wouldn't it be Follies? And in the hands of Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, and Danny Burstein, wouldn't this be a pretty good rendition?

Enough with the questions: doubt tends to lead to regret, and there's none of that here, for Follies is a memorable musical well worth seeing (especially if you haven't), an honest-to-god adult musical: yes, there are affairs and loveless marriages, but they aren't rashly dissolved -- there's weight behind every syllable of every year that Phyllis (the astounding Maxwell) saw squandered with her husband, Ben (Ron Raines): "Could I Leave You?" she spit-sing-snarls in her bring-down-the-house number; it's both tragically simple and hopelessly complex. The same goes for the relationship between flighty Sally (Peters, divinely mousey in the role), who loved Ben, and the aptly named Buddy (Burstein), for whom she settled. Buddy, the perfect gentleman, is at odds with himself, for while he's found the perfect woman -- Margie, who we never meet -- he's married to "The Right Girl," with whom he's still helplessly in love.

It's on the strength of these emotions, these regretted and re-examined relationships, that we're willing to follow the cast into their own minds, scenically represented by Derek McLane's feathery, Georgia O'Keefe series of prosceniums. And it's on the strength of songs like the pattering "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" that we're willing to stay there, even if this Buddy song's rehashing the Margie/Sally relationship woes he's just been raging over. The only problematic song is "Losing My Mind," a terrific slow-burn that Eric Schaeffer unfortunately stages almost identically to the earlier, equally fiery, "I'm Still Here." Everywhere else, the show manages to distinguish its nuances and layers -- note the bright colors Gregg Barnes gives the older women and the duller shades in which the ghosts are clad, or the way in which Natasha Katz's lighting only ever touches the present-day characters. It's a shame for the staging to falter, especially with Warren Carlyle proving himself an able choreographer in both the solid "Who's That Woman" and the slinky "The Story of Lucy and Jesse."

The same lack of distinctness goes for the subplots: Jayne Houdyshell is perhaps too noticeable as Hattie, the solid singer of "Broadway Baby"; when her vignette's done, you keep waiting for her to step back into the foreground. And while it's a shame that Emily (Susan Watson) appears to be going senile, you'd be forgiven for missing that -- there are but two lines that refer to it, and her cute duet "Rain on the Roof" all but washes her central tragedy away. It's not clear that any director would be more able to navigate these shakier bits, but they might at least speed through them: it sometimes feels as if Schaeffer himself is lost in the dilapidated scenery. Then again, it's Sondheim: who can blame him for wallowing? Follies: in which things can be so wrong, that they wind up right once more . . . and that's the greatest tragedy of them all.

No comments: