I saw the new Broadway production of “Follies” yesterday, and while I think the good outweighed the bad, I find myself scratching my head this morning. Granted the production has some issues, but more than that, the show itself demonstrates yet again that its stupendous score is used to paper over the shortcomings of its book.
I remember the endless debate in the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times when the original production opened, and I’ve loved the score ever since I bought the original Broadway cast LP on the day it was released. Dorothy Collins killed me as Sally, and the fact that you could actually hear the smile in Alexis Smith’s voice when she sang the line “That’s the sorrowful precis” knocked me over. In the years since I’ve acquired the same album on CD, along with the 1985 concert album (Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, George Hearn and Mandy Patinkin) and the two-disc Paper Mill Playhouse revival that tantalizingly includes all the songs that were cut before the show reached Broadway.
What I think is fundamentally wrong with “Follies” is that with the exception of Buddy (currently in a superlative performance by Danny Burstein), we don’t really know the main characters, nor do we learn how they got from Point A to Point B. We do know that Ben is rich and powerful and that he always wanted to be so, but when he has his breakdown at the end of the show, crying “Me…I don’t love me,” I had a hard time believing him. As Young Ben he seduced Sally but married Phyllis, and why does it matter anyway since at this point in their lives they seem interchangeable. And Phyllis is an enigma until rather late in the show when she finally busts loose with “Could I Leave You?” Until then she’s acerbic and rather remote (except, perhaps, with Buddy), and what interest we have in the character is due almost entirely to who’s playing her. What’s odd about the book is that the older version of the characters are required to illuminate their younger selves, all of whom seem to be blank slates. Dramatically speaking, it should be the other way around.
And what of Bernadette Peters as Sally, whose delusions epitomize “Follies”? No one loves BP more than I do, but she’s wrong for the role, and unfortunately this is compounded by a glaringly bad directing choice. Let’s take the former first: she doesn’t have the right vocal goods for Sally. Oddly enough, I don’t think you have to be Dorothy Collins or Barbara Cook to sing the part (though thank God they did). Donna McKechnie does fine on the Paper Mill Playhouse recording, and in my view Judith Ivey did a good job in the 2001 revival while acting the hell out of the role. What all these ladies have in common was some mileage on them and you can hear it. Bernadette Peters in her 60’s looks and sounds better than I did when I was 40. You just don’t believe she’s a depressed housewife who looks to cure her empty life by revisiting a 30-year-old passion. Instead you wonder why in the world she doesn’t dump her philandering husband and have a fling or two of her own. And I don’t know whose idea this was (probably the director’s), but to have her cry and act on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout “Losing My Mind” was overkill. The song is exquisitely written to show all this in musical form, and to have it so graphically acted out is totally contrary to Stephen Sondheim’s style. It detracts from the climax of the song, a true cri du coeur: “I want you so/It’s like I’m losing my mind.”
Whatever problems may exist with the book or in performance, “Follies” does not disappoint. The specialty numbers will always stop the show, and they do in this production. Jayne Houdyshell totally sells “Broadway Baby,” and Terri White is a singing and tap-dancing wonder in “Who’s That Woman.” Elaine Paige’s “I’m Still Here” is spot on, and Rosalind Elias’s operetta-style duet with her younger self, “One More Kiss,” is sweetly touching. The present version of “Buddy’s Blues” is the best and funniest I’ve ever seen, I loved the staging of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and the showgirls’ costumes in “Loveland” are tremendous.
Is it worth going to see? Definitely yes. There will never be a fault-free production of “Follies,” but it’s a theatrical work–it’s meant to be performed, not stored away in a box until the perfect cast comes along. It has one of the greatest Broadway scores ever written, and it’s always worth hearing people of talent take it on, whether you agree with the end result or not.