Friday, September 16, 2011

Sondheim's 'Follies' Returns

Bernadette Peters in Follies (photo by Joan Marcus)
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Goldman
Directed by Eric Schaeffer; choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Starring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, Elaine Paige, Rosiland Elias, Mary Beth Peil

Previews began Aug. 7, 2011; opened Sept. 12; tickets on sale through Jan. 1, 2012
Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway, New York, NY

Is there a perfect musical? Maybe not, but Follies has nearly everything: James Goldman’s superbly savvy book; Stephen Sondheim’s memorable and character-defining music and lyrics; a sly flashback structure, alternating between nostalgia and razor-sharp relationship dissection; and, of course, meaty musical moments for top-notch performers.

Unfortunately, Follies productions have been imperfect, starting with 1971’s original. The forgettable 2001 Broadway revival directed by Matthew Warchus wasted Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey, while the 2007 Encores! staging (with a scintillating Donna Murphy) sadly never transferred to Broadway. Eric Schaeffer’s new production, which began at Washington’s Kennedy Center, takes place on Derek McLane’s shrewdly rundown theater set, but never gets a firm handle on the show’s vignettes.

Follies’ main flaw? It introduces former Follies girls but gives all but the main characters Sally and Phyllis a lone chance to shine in songs driven not by narrative but nostalgia. Schaeffer efficiently stages them thanks to Warren Carlyle’s clever choreography, and veterans like Elaine Paige, Rosalind Elias and Mary Beth Peil make a good impression, but they are simply fodder separating the dramatic scenes among the lead couples.

Sally is married to Buddy but still carries a torch for Ben, who’s married to Phyllis. After they get reacquainted in the first act, they eventually rediscover long-dormant feelings--shown in flashbacks as the youthful foursome mirrors the present-day one--while the second act displays their heightened emotions in rousing, musical-within-a-musical form, each receiving a solo spotlight to convey those feelings.

As Sally, Bernadette Peters (a youthful 63, by the way) is as lissome as ever, breaking hearts with the poignant showstopper “Losing My Mind”; as Buddy, Danny Burstein tirelessly moves about the stage, bringing down the house with “The ‘God Why Don’t You Love Me‘ Blues”; as Phyllis, Jan Maxwell is as bitingly funny and adorable as ever, even if she overdoes the blustery comic hurt in “Could I Leave You?”; as Ben, Ron Raines is reliably sturdy right through the show’s final number “Live, Laugh, Love.”

Whenever Schaeffer doesn’t satisfactorily navigate Sondheim and Goldman’s seminal musical waters, the stars and Sondheim’s great, lasting songs come to the rescue.

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