It is 1971. The place is New York City and before the demolition of his landmark theater, Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin) summons his former actors and dancers to reunite and relive for one last time the glory days of his ‘Weismann Follies.’ While there, two couples (Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines) relive the old memories of when they first met and reexamine their present lives, in particular, their marriages. It will definitely be a night they’ll never forget.
This is the interesting premise of ‘Follies,’ the James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim musical revival that leaves the stage of The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C and moves over to the brights lights of Broadway at the Marquis Theater. Before I even sat down to see it, word was out that ‘Follies’ was the show to beat headed into the Tony’s in 2012. Well, how could you argue with that after Ben Brantley from The New York Times wrote that “Follies is one of the greatest musicals ever written”. Literally that might true, but the performance I saw was far from it. It was a night of highs and lows punctuated by a shockingly and rare disappointing performance from Bernadette Peters. The iconic actress seemed narcotized and sang off-key most of the night, especially during her “show-stopping solo” – Losing My Mind. Even the best have a bad day here and there. Nevertheless, her co-stars kept the ship steady and the direction from Eric Schaeffer was solid.
The book by James Goldman can only be described as a somber and stark take on marriage, nostalgia and growing old. The themes it takes on are unfortunately all bleak: divorce, recalling your prime and confronting your present mortality, infidelity and unwanted change. But that doesn’t mean musicals of this nature are destined for gloom and doom. No sir, shows like ‘Next To Normal’ (a depressing and demoralizing show if I ever saw one) have demonstrated that as long as the music is infectious and the performances are moving and sincere, you can be as hopeless as you want. ‘Follies’ regrettably, doesn’t compare to the latter show due to its slow, lulling pace, it’s forgettable music and unappealing characters. And perhaps if Ms. Peters delivered more of a ‘sober’ and spirited performance, my experience might have been better. Perhaps Mr. Schaeffer can offer other ways for the character of Sally to live within her. There was no question in the theater that the night belonged to Jan Maxwell who received the most thunderous applauses of the night along with Elaine Paige who gave a delightful and charismatic supporting performance. They unequivocally eclipsed Ms. Peters right off the stage. There was nothing absolutely memorable of her interpretation except her name.
I would catalog the first act of the program as a blend of heartbreak, cynicism and humanity. Some of the numbers and characters weren’t necessary and I would say some of it bogged down the production. The second act is the one worth seeing due to the colorful and visual dreamscape sequences, lively choreography and some emotional performances. Overall, what really stood out to me was the remarkable lighting design of Natasha Katz which introduced the younger versions of the elderly showgirls in a beautiful and inventive way. It was a treat to see to see how the stars stayed in color light while their ghosts were lit in blues and greens.
There are some crowd pleasing numbers to look forward to such as the nostalgic opening number, ‘Beautiful Girls,’ the vivacious ‘Who’s That Woman,’ Elaine Paige’s inspiring solo ‘I’m Still Here’ and Jan Maxwell’s vengeful ‘Could I Leave You’ and her sassy and sensual ‘The Story of Lucy and Jesse’.
Inside the Marquis Theater, Derek McLane’s gray and dilapidated drapes blanket the whole auditorium while the stage design offers an authentic feel of a historic place ready to say its goodbyes.
On a curious note, if you see Mr. Raines forgetting his line towards the end of his solo act, ‘Live, Love, Laugh,’ it is intentional and part of the act. Don’t go thinking you saw a ‘live’ error.
Schaeffer’s ‘Follies’ is in concept engrossing, but alas, it possesses challenges that don’t translate to a great night out nor the best of the Sondheim collection.