Saturday, October 8, 2011

Theater Review: Follies

I think about the late Christopher Reeve every time I attend a performance at the Marquis Theatre.  And I recall that ominous photo of him standing (tears running down his sculptured face) in the middle of New York City’s 45th Street as he displayed a huge sign to protest the destruction of two venerable Broadway houses: the Bijou and Morosco. There were five classic theatres that were destroyed so that the tacky Marriott Marquis Hotel could be built. As an attempt to atone, the hotel houses a large, modern arena that has none of the old-style charm and design features of the stately auditoriums that were torn down. However, as a compensative signal, something worthy is sometimes presented on its huge stage. And an excellent revival of Follies, the production currently being offered there, successfully transports the audience to another time, another place.

My first visit to Follies was during its original (now legendary) run at the Winter Garden when (on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in August of ’71) I approached the box office and asked whether I could buy a ticket in the orchestra for the matinee performance, which was about to start. I was handed a ticket for a seat on the aisle in row M just a few moments before the magic began. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had never seen anything like what was unfolding on stage. The cost to reproduce Boris Aronson’s glorious set designs today, for example, would be prohibitive. And I don’t know that we’ll ever again see anything on the boards as lavishly outfitted as that first production. It’s true that there have been numerous revivals and concert versions, but nothing has ever matched the original for sheer elegance.

Still, the revival now on the boards is most certainly worth your attention. It is said that the idea for the first mounting of Follies stemmed from a photograph of Gloria Swanson (outfitted in a Jean Louis sheath and exhibiting $170,000 worth of jewelry), her arms raised high in tribute, standing in the ruins of the demolished, incomparably grand Roxy Theatre in New York. “Are they repairing the walls of this theatre?” my companion for the evening asked as we were guided to our seats at the Marquis. I explained that the draped walls were part of Derek McLane’s skillful scenic design.  After all, this musical takes place on the evening before the theatre is to be torn down to make room for a parking lot. And James Goldman’s book for the event combines the past with the present by having younger Follies girls appear on stage as ghosts of their former embodiments together with their more mature, current selves for one last reunion.

The new production, directed by Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, revolves around two couples: Sally (Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) are married to Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines) respectively.  It is immediately apparent that everyone is unhappy. (“Could I leave you?” Phyllis sings, “Yes. Will I leave you?  Guess!”) And just listen to Peters’s rendition of “Losing My Mind” (“The sun comes up,/I think about you. The coffee cup,/I think about you...”) and you’ll know how palpably wounding unhappiness can be. 

This is a show that successfully merges the past with the present.  And so, the staging reminds us of the earlier days by giving us a parade of ghosts of the characters’ former selves throughout much of the action. And it is not surprising that Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant score pays tribute to the work of past greats like Rodgers, Berlin and Porter. In addition to the musical numbers that propel the plot, there are pastiche songs that are meant to salute those composers of Broadway’s Golden Age. In one “memory” number, the women upstage move in mirror-image to the chorus girls down front. And a bit that stops the show cold is Jane Houdyshell’s knockout version of “Broadway Baby”: “At/ My tiny flat/There’s just my cat,/A bed and a chair,/Still/I’ll stick it till/I’m on a bill/All over Times Square.”

There have been several revivals of Follies, some lavish and others rather simple; there were multi-star concert versions, including one at the Shubert Theatre and another at Lincoln Center. And there was an 1987 London production with a fine Dianna Rigg as Sally.  And, of course, we’ve been given several Broadway revivals throughout the years.

In its latest reincarnation, Follies is so captivating that it makes you eager to see more gems from the inimitable Stephen Sondheim.