After thirty years of waiting, is this the best Broadway could do?
Anyone except the most rabid Sondheimites will readily admit that Follies was never a great musical. The Stephen Sondheim score is magnificent, using classic showtune forms to illuminate dark corners of the soul that traditional musicals had rarely dared to travel to. But James Goldman’s uneven book held the show back since its debut in 1971.
The original production got mixed reviews, lost the Tony to Two Gentlemen From Verona and closed after little more than a year. The songs lived on, inspiring an all-star concert recording and numerous regional revivals. The best was just two years ago at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, bathing the show in so much warm glamour that it won fresh acclaim and almost moved to Broadway. But Goldman’s widow didn’t think the production did justice to her husband’s book, so she nixed it.
Talk about gall! The book is weaker than ice water, with its focus on two former chorus girls and the husbands they now wish they hadn’t married. Audiences wind up waiting for the next song, hoping the bitter plot scenes would just go away. By the final scene, this quartet is no wiser and just as miserable as ever.
Where Paper Mill gave Follies the feeling of greatness, the Roundabout revival drowns it in relentless gloom. This approach has possibilities, but it would take a master of musical stagecraft to pull it off. For some insane reason, this production was handed to Matthew Warchus, a British director who's never helmed a musical before. It is any surprise that the result is a mess? At $90 a seat, Broadway is not the place for directors to get basic training. What an insult to audiences!
With a musical tyro in charge, the more experienced creative team never had a prayer. Mark Thompson’s sets are ugly, Theoni V. Adridge’s costumes are surprisingly uninspired, and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting borders on the amateurish. Kathleen Marshall’s choreography never catches fire, and her clumsy staging of "Who’s That Woman" wastes a number that was one of Michael Bennett’s most acclaimed achievements.
And who decided to cut the orchestra to only fourteen musicians? It is a damn disgrace for Roundabout to charge full price for half an orchestration – boo, hiss! I'm astounded that Sondheim consented to have Follies done with a half-sized pit band.
In a show where the score is crucial and the book problematic, the leads must be played by solid actors with strong voices. In this case, only Treat Williams makes the grade, turning in the most sympathetic portrayal of Buddy I have ever seen. He is so likeable (and frankly, still so damned attractive) that one can’t help wondering why Sally has spent decades pining for someone else.
Williams’ co-stars are three of the most gifted actors I know, so it broke my heart to see them so woefully miscast. Gregory Harrison sings capably, but he has not even begun to tap Ben’s tragic core. Blythe Danner is more gorgeous than ever as Phyllis, but she has no clue how to perform a showtune. The usually delicious "Ballad of Lucy and Jessie" becomes of the most embarrassing numbers I have ever seen on a Broadway stage. My heart went out to her she should never have been so shabbily used.
It was a mistake to cast the divine Judith Ivy as Sally. She simply cannot sing the role, and any dramatic inroads she might have made were clearly lost thanks to inept direction. Like there are no actresses around with the pipes to handle this role? They were foolish to select her and she was just as foolish to accept the part.
Okay, so the bad news is that this Follies is a dramatic and conceptual failure. The good news is that it also features some of the most exciting musical moments Broadway has seen in several seasons. Since you don't get those moments from the production, the book or the leads, that leaves the featured ensemble, and in Follies that amounts to a small army.
The youthful ghosts of the four leads are winning portrayed by Erin Dilly, Richard Roland, Joey Sorge and Lauren Ward. Radiantly optimistic and more than a little sexy, they turned "You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow" into one of the highlights of the evening.
Marge Champion and Donald Saddler are endearing as the old hoofers. Jane White, (the original Queen Agravaine in Once Upon a Mattress) is a riot as Solange – the first time a performer has won belly laughs with the lyric to "Ah Paree!" And Larry Raiken sings the treacherous "Beautiful Girls" to a thrilling fare-thee-well.
Carol Woods delivers a soulful "Who’s That Woman," but the staging defeats her best efforts. I dare you not to fall in love with Betty Garrett’s understated "Broadway Baby" – you just want to pick her up and hug her. Polly Bergen stops everything cold with "I’m Still Here," bringing a rare degree of introspection to a song that is too often a mere belt-fest.
The emotional highpoint comes when Joan Roberts sings "One More Kiss." At 81, she soars through this difficult aria in a triumph of both technique and sheer willpower. The amazing thing is that you will recognize the crystalline sound she delivered as Laurie on the original cast recording of Oklahoma. After more than half a century, she still delivers.
As she sang, the theatre finally fills with ghosts from the past. Real ones. Rodgers, Hammerstein, Alfred Drake. Trust me when she sings, they are there. The night I attended, I was not the only one moved to tears. Roberts tore the place apart, and we kept roaring long after she stepped offstage.
In the end, musical buffs will find this Follies far from satisfying. Yes, it has some performances we'll be talking about for years to come. Its just that, after thirty years of waiting, this should have been put in more capable hands.
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