Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: Ghosts of Follies Past

There’s a reason why drama and theater go hand-in-hand. It’s because theater people are filled with way too much drama. Especially the love square in the revival of Follies. This classic Sondheim show has been through the grinder, so it would be pointless for me to say that James Goldman’s book is abysmal. So we’ll completely bypass those points and discuss the production.
The musical transfer that previously played The Kennedy Center and will soon travel to Los Angeles is simple and stark. But that’s what the play calls for. It takes place in a theater that is soon to be demolished and turned into a parking lot so why not bring the set into the audience of the Marquis Theater? Upon entrance before the show, the precedence is set. You can hear the ghosts of Follies past. From tapping to chatter. It’s present. And so are the Follies girl “ghosts” throughout the production. The stage pictures of the Follies girls are sometimes stunning. They appear when you least likely expect them, and rarely are they a distraction. Unfortunately, distraction is ever-present once the Follies reunion begins. Eric Schaeffer’s staging is often static. The way the musical is set up, there is action that takes place downstage, but in reality, there is a party happening upstage, and thus, becomes distracting. I learned while doing high school theater about being present but not distracting in the background. Unfortunately, this company neglected that education. Additionally, the book is set up to present song and immediate dialogue, often by a character that enters the stage. And well, it appeared quite amateurish since a spotlight was used every single time. Perhaps these scenelets were asked to take place in various locations in the theater, but in this production, it’s all on stage. And it’s hard to believe that these tender discussions would happen with a potentially present listening audience is upstage. The majority of these dialogues are about Sally asking Ben to love her, despite being married to Buddy for a number of years. Is it believable that it takes Sally thirty plus years to admit her love because she can only say it in person? Probably not. Again, all of these issues aren’t Schaeffer’s fault. He’s done the best he can with a terrible book. The majority of theater-goers attending Follies are there to listen to Sondheim’s famous score. Follies is a musical where we long for the next hit song and want to skip the dialogue (hence why this production’s cast album is glorious).
What the book lacks, the stage pictures make up for. In not so many words, they are often wonderful. The use of Young and Old characters is sublime. It’s moving. We’ve all had those nutty moments when we return to our old stomping grounds and imagine our past selves present again. Nostalgia. That’s why Follies resonates. “Who’s That Woman” is the big wow moment of the show because we get to see the past interact with the present through dance. It’s engaging and truly a wonderful number. As is the scene late in Act II before entering Loveland where an intertwining scene of past and present between the love-square squabble and discuss the future. It works.
It’s pretty safe to say that this is an All-Star cast. Watching the sensational Jan Maxwell is like watching a master class in performing. She is the perfect Phyllis. The right mix of comedy and pity. And that dancing, right on! Danny Burstein’s Buddy is loveable. You feel for him as Sally virtually dumps him on the spot, and later has his own “Rose’s Turn” moment. Both Maxwell and Burstein should expect a seat at the Tony Awards. As will at least one of the supporting ladies, who will probably all be fighting for a spot. Jayne Houdyshell is a hoot singing the iconic “Broadway Baby.” Terri White is sublime as Stella. And then you have Elaine Paige’s Carlotta who brings the house down with “I'm Still Here.” Nick Verina and Lora Lee Gayer shine as Young Ben and Young Sally. But the sad part of the acting company is Bernadette Peters. Sally should be off-balanced and mildy depressed and quite a bit neurotic. Peters just plays her as dim. She does redeem herself quite handsomely singing “Losing My Mind.” Unfortunately, it’s too late in the show to start caring about her character. By that point, I just wanted more Jan Maxwell.
Follies is a good production. It has some remarkable performances. But despite a stellar ensemble, the book is just too flawed to be a smash.