It could use a little more polish, but here’s my review for ‘Follies’ which I got to see this weekend with Bernadette Peters!!! 😀 There’s a lot more I’d like to write about, but it was so long and I’ve already cut the first paragraph, so I thought I’d better stop there. :O
It’s no surprise that a production like ‘Follies‘ isn’t commonly chosen to grace the stages of community theaters. First of all, there are the extravagant sets and costumes, extremely demanding for the average stage company. But more importantly, Follies is no Sound of Music, or even Les Misérables (my favorite show of all time), where experiences and emotions beyond the understanding of a high school actor can still be effectively forged. Follies revolves around memories and feelings of the utmost delicacy and tenderness. The actor can’t ride on the wave of zippy melodies, or leave the tricky compositions behind in favor of exhibiting raw emotion. The show demands a meticulous tight-rope walk between music and sentiment, and a true understanding of the content.
I was lucky enough to see Follies at the Marquis Theater this Friday starring Bernadette Peters, reprising her role as Sally Durant Plummer, a forty-year-old former chorus girl reuniting with her fellow Follies dancers in a last salute to their old theater, which is about to be razed. Following on her heels is her concerned husband Buddy, played by Danny Burstein (who was, as a side note, absolutely fabulous as Billis in the recent South Pacific revival). The couple is quickly joined by Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), Sally’s former roommate, and her husband Ben (Ron Raines). All seems well as the four break into a nostalgic tune (‘The Girls Upstairs’), recalling the frenzy of the stage and the exuberance of young love. The pretense of a light-hearted reunion is quickly stripped away, however, as tensions between both couples and former lovers Sally and Ben become increasingly evident.
The first half is decidedly sleepy; the chorus girls arrive, reminisce, and perform their old favorite showstoppers, one of which includes the musical standard ‘Broadway Baby’, sung with spunk by Jayne Houdyshell as thrice-widowed former showgirl Hattie Walker. They literally co-mingle with the ghosts of their younger selves, who run and skip through memories of a theater in its prime, as well as a more solemn brand of ghosts who slink passively through the shadows, decked out in exorbitant Ziegfeld-attire. While these specters of youth serve mainly to enact flashbacks, and seem less present in the theater and more the visions of a parallel time line, it is the more generic ‘ensemble’ ghosts who create a truly unsettling, paranormal atmosphere. They gaze upon the aging chorus girls with blank expressions, wandering aimlessly along the abandoned catwalks and through the darkened corners, always with the utmost poise and grace, watching the story unfold with troubling detachment.
But despite the big number and the eerie presence of the youthful phantoms, the story and the songs seem to drag. We see Buddy loves Sally, Sally loves Ben, while Ben and Phyllis are lost in confusion regarding their convoluted feelings. The audience watches the drama unfold, but there isn’t much incentive to particularly care about their relationship woes, especially as the other womens’ reflections upon their past selves seem infinitely more interesting.
It’s in the second act, however, that things finally seem to come together. First, Jan Maxwell wows with a powerful, near-perfect rendition of ‘Could I Leave You?‘, revealing an overwhelming strength beneath the hurt and the anger regarding Ben’s neglect. Each of the four reflect bitterly on the foolishness of their younger selves, finally confronting their youthful apparitions. It is here that the colorless reality of the fading theater is suddenly replaced by the fantastical world of ‘Loveland’, decked out with pink feathers and peppy dancers, where the four characters seem to regress as they reach their breaking points.
Follies comes off as a pleasant sleepwalk throughout the show. It touches on heartbreak and lost youth, but the feelings don’t seem to genuinely be there. It is only when the characters, broken, retreat into their minds that the show finally comes alive. Burstein is hilarious and heart-breaking singing ‘The Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues‘, touching on sentiments so personal and most likely familiar that it’s a little disconcerting. Bernadette Peters, true to form, finally takes command of the stage and blows the audience away with ‘Losing My Mind‘, explaining Sally’s all-consuming longing for her idealized vision of Ben. Maxwell leads the ensemble in a glitzy dance number, reflecting on the short-comings of both her present personality and that of her vivacious younger self. Lastly, Ben sings of his belief in living life without consequence; only to end in the realization of his need for Phyllis and an emotional breakdown. This would be my one complaint with the Loveland sequence; every actor plays their part to perfection, except Raines, who can portray Ben’s sly charm but can’t quite deliver the emotional punch necessary to land this final sequence.
Follies is very difficult to review; it feels cheap to even try and comment on material that so obviously surpasses my level of understanding. I haven’t even reached the age of Sally and Phyllis’ ghosts, much less am I capable of comprehending their older incarnation’s wistful recollections of youth, their bitterness over choices made so long ago, and their longing to relive a happier time. I am aware, however, that I’ve witnessed something more profound than the average musical; and whether my opinions on the productions short-comings are valid or merely attributable to my youth, I will let you decide.