“Never look back.” This song lyric from the musical Follies is also a warning to each of the characters in the show. It may serve as a warning to audience members as well. After viewing this rich, beautifully rendered production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, audience members will long to look back into the theater for one more glimpse of this brilliant show.
A love and hate letter to nostalgia, and one of Sondheim’s richest and most daring scores, Follies has only been revived twice since it first opened in 1971. A large cast, lavish sets and costumes and enormous orchestrations have prevented the show’s productions during tight economic times, as well as lack of interest in the show itself. Set at party that reunites a group of Weismann Follies dancers the night before their theater is torn down to build a parking lot, the show follows the adults as they explore their pasts and reflect upon their unhappy presents. It is not exactly an uplifting performance.
Happily, the Broadway revival of Follies, currently in performances at the Marriot Marquis theater, might achieve what no other has – a financial profit resulting from an excited audience. With a cast of solid performers and established stars, all delivering knockout performances, director Eric Schaeffer’s revival of Follies establishes the show for what it is – an achingly beautiful and sad production and a staple of musical theater.
The reunion of old friends at the theater proves to be a catalyst, causing all of them to examine their lives. As the party commences, the former showgirls parade down a staircase to the famed song “Beautiful Girls” and then proceed to catch up with old friends by revising their pasts and lying about their presents. Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) and Sally (Bernadette Peters), former dancers who married their stage door Johnnies Ben (Ron Raines) and Buddy (Danny Burnstein), haven’t seen each other in years and immediately begin reminiscing and attempting to destroy their futures. Sally and Ben were once lovers on the sly and Sally is determined to get him back, Buddy be damned. And while Ben and Phyllis look like the perfect, elegant couple, appearances are deceiving. All of them are obsessed with their missed opportunities and trying to convince everyone around them, as well as themselves, that they are happy.
The book of Follies, by James Goldman, has always been considered the show’s weakest link. None of these characters are very likeable on paper, but performed by a cast of such established and experienced actors, it is impossible to deny them some sympathy. The casting of the eternally youthful Peters as frumpy housewife Sally raised some eyebrows, but she gives a focused and intense performance, depicting Sally a woman teetering on the edge of a complete nervous breakdown but determined to get one last chance at achieving her missed opportunities. Peters, who looked entirely too sexy in the DC show, embodies the part much more accurately on Broadway, with a more modest dress and wig.
Played by Maxwell, this Phyllis is a deeply sympathetic character. She may appear brittle and bitter, but Maxwell offers much-needed glimpses into her vulnerability. After spending 30 years attempting to be the perfect wife for her husband, she takes visible delight in performing the songs and dances from her youth, revealing how much fun this woman could be if she was given the chance.
Burstein’s Buddy, the determinedly cheerful man who is simply unable to be happy, is a revelation of a performance. A staple character actor who became a Broadway name when performing in The Drowsy Chaperone and South Pacific, Burstein is finally cast in a leading role that shows his incredible stage talent. On the surface, Buddy is a loveable man but when he takes the stage in “The Right Girl” and “The-God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues,” he offers the audience unique insights into his character and why he remains devoted to his wife even though she does not love him in return. Depicting the incredible frustration he feels with his own apathy, Burstein makes Buddy a complete and unique character.
As Ben, Raines accepts the challenge of playing the least sympathetic of the quartet. His hearty, affable presence and powerful voice reveal how charming Ben can be, while the subtle nuances he gives the character allow the audience to glimpse into the man behind the façade and understand why he makes the terrible choices that he does.
Along with the four main characters, the supporting ensemble of this production is nothing short of outstanding, especially the two newest additions since the Kennedy Center cast. As Solange, Mary Beth Peil gives a superb rendition of “Ah, Paris!” Resplendent in a long black gown, she provides meaning to a song that, up until this production, had never impressed me before. And Jane Houdyshell’s cheery, determined rendition of “Broadway Baby” is amusing, heartfelt and bittersweet.
When the ensemble joins together for a show-stopping rendition of “Who’s That Woman?” led by an outstanding Terri White, the effect is absolutely beautiful. Choreographed Warren Carlyle, all of the dance numbers in the show are impressive, but this number, which depicts the ghosts of the Follies girls dancing with their older selves and featuring some of the most haunting music and lyrics Sondheim ever wrote, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Another famous number from the show is “I’m Still Here,” performed by Elaine Paige. Paige, a veteran of West End and Broadway, infuses the song with heartfelt feelings of pride for everything she has survived, and fear of the future, as she inevitably continues to age. The lyrics, which pay tribute to the ups and downs in the life of an actress, are clever and entertaining, and Paige’s rendition of the song, which felt a bit too forced and over-the-top at the Kennedy Center, has found its place. In short, she nails it.
This fear is felt by almost every character onstage and it threatens to and almost destroys every one of them. Ben desperately attempts to convince Sally and himself that he is happy with his life even though he secretly he longs for his youth when he had nothing but time. Sally wishes she could go back in time and make different choices. Phyllis, who said she “couldn’t wait to be old, when nothing would matter,” knows she has some time left but doesn’t know how to make it different. And Buddy is cursed with his undying devotion to Sally, even when he knows she doesn’t love him in return.
These desires and regrets are brought to life center stage in the second act, when each of the unhappy quartet perform their own Follies number. Each of these songs, which have become famous in musical theater cannon, are nothing short of outstanding. Burstein is a spot-on Buddy, as he sings “The-God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues.” Complete with vaudeville-style costumes and dance steps, the number firmly establishes Burstein as a leading man on Broadway. Peters is heartbreaking as she sings, “Losing My Mind,” a torch song of Sally’s obsession with Ben. Fiercely restrained and desperately quiet, Peters strips away Sally’s façade as a happy housewife and exposes her as a deeply disturbed woman obsessed with the past. The song, enhanced significantly since the production at the Kennedy Center, starkly reveals Sally’s solitude and her sinking into the depths of her own madness. Maxwell is finally able to shine – literally – when she takes the stage with “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” a jazzy tribute to the two sides of herself that are unable to reconcile. This number, which felt slightly flat at the Kennedy Center, has tightened up, with new choreography and is a true delight to watch. And Raines’ rendition of “Live, Laugh, Love,” when Ben admits that he is nothing but a fraud and leads into his breakdown, is eerily fantastic.
“You’re gonna love tomorrow,” the young Ben sings to the young Phyllis, just after they two are married. It’s a safe bet that for the two and a half hours that this show is being performed, members of the audience won’t think about the past or the future. They will be too enraptured with the present.