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Too Many Moanings by Matthew Murray

  • Follies1.jpgThe truest thrills of the Stephen Sondheim–James Goldman musical Follies do not come from its score or its book. Sure, Sondheim's score is packed with winners of both the pastiche and from-the-heart variety, and Goldman's story about two conflicting couples is timeless in its examination of why we let relationships get and stay bad. But what has always set the show apart is the way music and speech collude to contrast two waning marriages with the disintegrating art form of the Broadway musical. One of the stories cannot be told without also telling the other; most productions pick one (typically about the people), and fail. Eric Schaeffer's glittery new mounting at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., picks neither and implodes just the same.

    This is not through lack of trying. The Kennedy Center has demonstrated here, as it did with its home-grown Mame and Ragtime over the last few years, that it's willing to devote the financial and physical resources these shows require. That means this Follies comes packaged with real sets (by Derek McLane); a mile-wide costume plot (Gregg Barnes); a cast of 41, led by heavy-hitters like Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, and Linda Lavin; and, perhaps most scintillating for show music lovers, a full 28-piece orchestra under playing Jonathan Tunick's peerless original charts under the baton of musical director James Moore.

    Unfortunately, Follies, like most serious-minded musicals, demands more than just, well, more. Without a thoughtful, intimate understanding of what it's saying and, even more importantly, why it's saying it, no visual or aural stimulation can keep the show from becoming both shallow and incomprehensible. That is the fate that's befallen Schaeffer's version.

    Featuring many of the usual trims and excisions in both the book (some of the more acerbic and damning character lines) and score (there's no "Bolero d'Amour" or that exciting three-way montage at the end of the first third), the material is hobbled to begin with; Follies really works less well the further you get from the original, fractured conception that resulted from Sondheim and Goldman's collaboration with original director Harold Prince and director-choreographer Michael Bennett. Compounding this issue is that Schaeffer either does not know—or has not discovered how to communicate—why everything happens as it does.

    The central story, about Sally and Buddy Plummer (Peters and Danny Burstein) and Phyllis and Ben Stone (Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines) is more or less straightforward: Ben romanced both women, but got over Sally to pick the "correct" Phyllis; Sally never got over Ben, and settled for Buddy, and has spent the last three decades ruining both their lives. When the four reassemble for the first time in 30 years at a reunion of the Weismann Follies, the large-scale entertainment for which the women were chorus girls and the men Stage Door Johnnies during the early part of World War II, all this comes out and threatens to take them all down with it.

    What gives this story its punch, however, is the gradual irruption of the Follies into the quartet's modern-day lives. It begins with just the usual spirits roaming about the theatre, with the young versions of Ben, Buddy, Sally, and Phyllis (Nick Verina, Christian Delcroix, Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott) latching onto their older selves and replaying crucial scenes from their lives. But before long, the past starts to take over, first in the production number "Who's That Woman?"; and especially in the climactic "Loveland" sequence, when the universe forces all four lovers to face their woes in grand-old show-biz fashion and finally decide to either move on or not.

    But Schaeffer does not justify any of the ephemeral characters. The young ghosts' attraction to their older selves comes across as incidental, and doesn't portray the parasitic relationship between the past and present that propels the action. Exacerbating this problem is the inordinate amount of attention thrown on them just the same, with lighting designer Natasha Katz darkening and recoloring the stage every time the ghosts have a scene—a traditional but disorienting solution. If 1971 and 1941 are not colliding head on, then what exactly is happening? Schaeffer offers no clue. "Who's That Woman?" becomes an empty showstopper in the wake of this type of approach—choreographer Warren Carlyle sets 14 women tap dancing, but neither the "real" dancers nor their "imaginary" partners contribute to the texture of the show. The number is supposed to signal that something has gone very amiss and the world's reality is about to crack; here, everyone is just there to have a good time. (As the number is led by the song-and-dance powerhouse Terri White, this is perhaps understandable, if dramatically indefensible.)

    The same is true of the others who've attended the reunion: Emily and Theodore Whitman (Susan Watson and Terrence Currier), Solange (Régine), and Hattie Walker (Lavin) perform "The Rain on the Roof," "Ah, Paris!", and "Broadway Baby" as untethered from the prevailing theme of time's unruliness. The characters should be self-exorcising ghosts of their own, symbols of satisfaction unexpectedly obtained; when these numbers blend in the aforementioned montage, this is more clear. Without it, you only notice how spry Watson and Currier are and how rafter-shakingly dynamic Lavin can be, even if she looks far too young and her style suggests modern irony more than old-time charisma. (Régine was struggling with her lines throughout her song at the opening-night performance, to the degree critiquing what little she did seems genuinely unfair.) Carlotta Campion, once Phyllis and Sally's contemporary and now a TV star, should anchor the pain and be a beacon for hope, but Paige sings the character's ostensibly defiant "I'm Still Here" with a bright anger bereft of the necessary triumph. Only opera star Rosalind Elias, cast as the Viennese vocalist Heidi Schiller, proves a solid match, unlocking all the quiet confidence and romanticism in her haunting solo "One More Kiss" (which she sings, charmingly, with Leah Horowitz).

    Follies2.jpgOne suspects that in the right production, the four leads would soar; here, they're rarely given a chance. Some of the problems are logistical; they deliver almost all of their scenes in straight lines, which allows for little movement or variety. But though Raines sings superbly, he doesn't drip with the callow regret Ben needs; Burstein plays battered and bruised wonderfully, but isn't especially likeable (which devastates his Follies turn, "Buddy's Blues"). Peters is, well, Peters—she gives a thoroughly adult reading of Sally (not a whit of her usual kewpie-doll cutesiness bled through here), but doesn't probe into the tortured depths of the woman's soul or convince you that Ben has never left the forefront of her mind. Her renditions of "Buddy's Eyes," "Too Many Mornings," and "Losing My Mind" are scattered, and not in a good way. Maxwell is a stately Phyllis, and scintillating in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" (even if Carlyle does not use her well), but too quick to anger when things go south in her marriage—she doesn't make you believe that a woman who's tolerated so much for so long would unhinge as easily as she does, and this turns her "Could I Leave You?" into something that's less a caustic attack than an uncomfortable rant.

    There are also serious issues with the staging that sever vital connecting tissue. McLane's set is a head-scratcher: Obviously intended to be real, it depicts neither onstage nor backstage, though it occasionally seems to belong in both places; it's graced by a staircase that lurches about of its own volition with little consideration for either geography or common sense. Dropping a black curtain behind the arguing octet of young and old lovers, their rage exploding in pseudo-Brechtian slow motion (again while they're all arranged in a straight line), to transition into Loveland is hokey and underpowered; the flower drops that outline the playing space for that section, sometimes augmented by a cartoony curtain, define the sequence as neither realistic nor deconstructive.

    So confusing is "Loveland," and most of the rest of the staging, that one suspects Schaeffer has not developed a satisfactory answer to that question for himself—or his production. So nothing fits together, and the show's looks and sounds become as vague and meaningless as Ben's, Phyllis's, Sally's, and Buddy's lives, with everything around them dissolving in a mist of undirected, untheatrical angst that rarely engages and never affects. Follies can get along without the sumptuousness of its storied original production, as Roundabout's low-budget but high-octane 2001 revival proved. But it can't survive without a reason for being; with nothing to link the entertainment of the past with the enlightenment of today, the result is a show that, as Phyllis says of herself, rarely digs beneath the surface. Too often, this Follies doesn't even seem to know what a shovel is.

    Photos by Joan Marcus. Top to bottom: Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters; Danny Burstein (center) with Jenifer Foote and Kiira Schmidt.

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