Saturday, June 11, 2011

Who's That Woman: My Review of Follies

Some of Stephen Sondheim's most catchy tunes, ornate costumes and sets, and the divine Miss Bernadette Peters...what more could you ask for? Many musical theatre aficionados will not be happy with a production of Follies until one directly matches the original from 1971, but the Kennedy Center's current incarnation does a completely respectable job in hearkening back to the original while updating in a few places. The production is what I'll call hauntingly stunning in that the visuals are sharp and memorable while they evoke a feeling of longing for what once was...or never was. The opening moment will stay with me forever and yet it is remarkably simplistic. As the lights come up ever so dimly, a gorgeous showgirl ever so slightly raises and lowers her arms. As she begins to turn to face down stage, other show girls enter unison with the overture and we are immediately transported back to 1940 when the dancing girls were the epitome of style and class.

The first star entrance is that of two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters in the role of Sally Durant Plummer. She looks so darn sweet and hopeful as she swoons at the thought of returning the New York City and reuniting with those from her past that she almost reminds you of little orphan Annie. This is not the strong, domineering Bernadette that we saw in Gypsy, or more recently in A Little Night Music, but a fragile and delusional woman who seems to forget that she is well beyond her showgirl days and therefore, past her prime. She is soon reunited with a diverse cast of characters that were her friends and fellow dancers 30 years prior, most noticeably her former roommate Phyllis Rogers Stone played by the luminous Jan Maxwell. Director Eric Schaeffer does a beautiful job of incorporated the younger selves, or ghosts, of Sally and Phyllis as well as their respective husbands Buddy and Ben in the song Waiting For the Girls Upstairs, where we learn that the foursome went dancing many a night after the boys waited for the girls at the stagedoor. We also learn very quickly that Sally is not and has never been happy with Buddy, as she has always longed for her first love Ben who married Phyllis so many years ago.

In the beginning of the first act we are treated to Broadway Baby, Ah Paris, and In Buddy's Eyes. Linda Lavin, Regine, and Ms. Peters respectively perform the heck out of these songs, though they appear more as cabaret numbers rather than integrated pieces of the show. This may be a flaw in the show's book or in the direction, but I'm willing to forgive that because of what comes up next, the show-stopping Who's That Woman led by the commanding Terri White. She taps, she belts, what doesn't she do? The choreography is relatively simplistic, but this production number performed by all the former showgirls is just so entertaining that you want to be on your feet dancing along with them. Watching Bernadette tap in her LaDucas is just one of most delightful things I've ever seen.

The rest of Act I includes the phenomenal I'm Still Here by an illustrious Elaine Paige who has a penchant for the over-dramatic. At the end of the act things really fall apart as Buddy and Phyllis realize that his wife is in love, and borderline obsessed, with her husband. Too Many Mornings, the act I finale is beautifully staged between Sally, Ben (Ron Raines) and their young ghosts. Ben goes so far as to kiss Sally and being the egotistical womanizer he is, it means nothing to him though Sally takes it as an announcement of love and a marriage proposal. Ms. Peters is quite fantastic in this scene as we sympathize with her Sally because Ben is playing so nonchalantly with her emotions.

Act II gives us a much better look at the talents of the show's other stars Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein. Her Could I Leave You is a perfect example of why Sondheim normally casts actors who sing rather than singers who act. Her attention to character and emotion in this song about divorcing Ben is spot on and though her vocal tone is not always perfect, we'll forgive her. We reach the emotional climax of the show in Loveland a dream sequence where the primary characters and their younger selves deliver performances that reveal their deepest emotions. Buddy's Blues is a vaudeville-style number that demonstrates Danny Burstein's true talents as a song and dance man as well as a gifted actor and Live Laugh Love shows us how emotionally tortured Ben has felt throughout his life. The Story of Lucy and Jessie is meant to be a showstopper for Phyllis, but unfortunately the choreography does nothing for Jan Maxwell but make her look inadequate while the male ensemble pulls focus. The highlight, for me, of the second act is Sally's Losing My Mind where she reveals the depths of her obsession with Ben and the turmoil it puts her though day after day as the smallest things from the sun and a cup of coffee make her daydream of him. I've said it before but watching Bernadette Peters sing on stage is like taking a master class in acting a song. She stands still downstage center for the entire song and never moves, not even her arms. Every ounce of emotion is on her face and in her voice. Her performance of this song is something I will remember for my entire life.

It is debatable whether the show ends with a tiny bit of hope or in complete despair and I guess it depends on the person. I'll paraphrase the final lines, but after Ben decides to stay with Phyllis, Buddy walks Sally out of the theatre and tells her they'll wait until tomorrow and decide what to do, to which Sally responds that it is already tomorrow. I guess we'll really never know what happens to these characters after the show ends and that is, for me, the most frustrating part of the show.

Its been nearly a week since I saw Follies and I've been trying to formulate my opinions, but I've struggled. One conclusion that I've come to is that every important piece of plot and emotion is covered in the songs so perhaps this show is better done in concert than in a fully staged production. Then those great numbers like Broadway Baby won't stand out because they don't fit into the plot, but simply because they are fantastic songs.

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