Sunday, September 18, 2011
By Harry Forbes
To cut to the chase, Broadway’s second revival of the Stephen Sondheim cult favorite is, not only a vast improvement on the last (the Roundabout’s oddly mediocre 2001 mounting), but a superior production by any standards.
When the evocative ghosts silently traverse the stage in the opening moments and you hear the luscious strains of the 28-piece orchestra (under James Moore’s excellent direction), you just know you’re in for a treat.
And though the sleek, modern Marquis may seem an odd fit for a show taking place in a soon-to-be-demolished old theater, masking the proscenium and boxes in black drapery (courtesy of designer Derek McLane) goes a great distance in overcoming the disparity.
On the other hand, both the 1998 Paper Mill production, which by all rights should have transferred to Broadway, and the 2007 Encores revival were, I think, more consistently persuasive, but here, director Eric Schaeffer has brought out nuances in the text that are often revelatory.
Textually, this is basically the 1971 original with none of the material from the 1987 London revival – like the “Ah, But Underneath” strip that Phyllis performed at Paper Mill – and musically, it is missing only the “Bolero D’Amore” number.
The cast is fine across the board. Danny Burstein is the best of the post-Gene Nelson interpreters of Buddy, creating an enormously sympathetic character, and bringing back at least some balletic movement to his big moment, “The Right Girl,” which people forget was accompanied by Nelson’s virtuosic dancing in the original production. Ron Raines’ Ben, the disillusioned businessman, is on the stolid side, but the approach works for the uptight, self-absorbed character, and he sings beautifully.
As for their unhappy wives, Jan Maxwell nails Phyllis, delivering a really scorching “Could I Leave You?” that makes you momentarily forget even the best of the past ladies in the role, though I didn’t quite buy her generic vamping in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” rather prosaically choreographed by Warren Carlyle.
Bernadette Peters’ Sally – delusionally carrying a torch for Ben– is alternately touching and overwrought. This lady is really losing her mind, long before she gives voice to that condition in her eleven o’clock torch song. Vocally, Peters does some lovely things, especially with that upper range of her voice which we rarely hear, though at other times, her singing seems a bit tremulous.
Though she doesn’t bring the true-life persona of the original’s Yvonne DeCarlo or Paper Mill’s Ann Miller, London’s West End musical queen Elaine Paige – who’s already proven her Sondheim chops in the New York City Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” – gives a finely shaded reading of “I’m Still Here,” a bit over the top only at the climax. At my performance, the lights and the mikes blew just as the song was reaching that climax, but Paige finished the number like a trouper. She was also a hoot in her line readings.
As for the other ladies, Terri White is as much a standout delivering “Who’s That Woman?” as she was in “Finian’s Rainbow” where she stopped the show with her almost baritonal rendition of “Necessity.” The surprise here is her nimble footwork, as she leads the gals through their paces.
Jayne Houdyshell’s drolly dour “Broadway Baby” is amusing; Mary Beth Peil’s “Ah, Paree” a bit too understated; and Metropolitan Opera veteran mezzo Rosalind Elias – accompanied by Leah Horowitz as her younger self – delivers an especially powerful “One More Kiss,” though the Romberg-esque duet is arguably more satisfying performed in a soprano timbre.
It is a delight to see Susan Watson, the ingénue lead in the hit revival of “No, No, Nanette” which ran concurrently with the original “Follies,” turn up here with Don Correia singing and hoofing through a charming “Rain on the Roof.”
Schaeffer brings out all the marital strife of James Goldman’s script and then some. The highly-charged confrontations among the four principals are as acerbic as anything by Strindberg. Some of that bitterness could be ramped down, I think, but the text does support the interpretation, and the resulting fireworks are certainly not dull.
McLane’s dark empty theater set gives way to a splendiferous burst of pink for the big “Loveland” sequence, Natasha Katz’s atmospheric lighting in the early scenes morphing into complementary radiance. Gregg Barnes, whose costumes sharply defined each of the characters, also has a field day in this sequence. The production, on the whole, looks as good as it sounds.
This is not perhaps completely the “Follies” of one's dreams, but it will do just fine until that idealized one comes along.
(Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com) Print this post