If you care about American musical theatre and you can get to Washington DC in the next month, you have to see Follies at the Kennedy Center. It’s a masterwork, but it’s tough and uneven, the bastard child of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Usually, the focus has been on the dark and depressing aspects of James Goldman’s book, rather than that the characters have endured and will somehow find a new beginning for themselves. The score is a marvel, covering Tin Pan Alley, Viennese operetta, the Great American Songbook, and the conceptual, recitative style that Stephen Sondheim pioneered with Anyone Can Whistle. It’s light, charming, ruminative, emotionally complex, ambivalent, and enraged and that’s not counting the lyrics.
The set up is a reunion of performers, primarily showgirls, from the Weismann (à la Ziegfeld) Follies of the 1910s – 1940s, just before the old theatre is about to be torn down for a parking lot in 1971. Most of the supporting characters (this is a cast of 43) are either the performers at the reunion or the chimeras from their past at their prime. The four major characters are two couples, best friends thirty years earlier, who are uncertain whether they married the right people or pursued the careers that suited them. This is rarely performed because the cast is everything – it has to be seasoned and there needs to be former stars in it. This production has current stars (musical theatre superstars) and a deep bench of mature talent, part of the reason that it cost $6 million.
Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige are the money names, though Paige has a supporting role, and Peters behaves as part of an all-star cast, while the audience at first acted like she had the lead. Peters looks extraordinary and is in fine singing form. She brings glamour to Sally – a role that doesn’t call for it. Jan Maxwell, who’s been making waves the last few seasons in New York, is very strong as the brittle, but emotionally strong, Phyllis. Her dancing seems tentative in her big second act number and it was difficult to tell if it was the character or the performer’s hesitation until she pulled off a back flip. She also had the funniest scene in the show beginning with the line “I always wanted a son” while being nuzzled by a waiter. Ron Raines has a wonderful voice as the husband both women want and really shakes the second act to its emotional core. He’s the central figure of the plot, but has the good performing grace to stand back for the women. Danny Burstein has a difficult part – the unloved husband who won’t quit his wife to the point of annoyance – though his vaudeville trio number with the hilarious Kiira Schmidt and Jenifer Foote as his girlfriend and wife, respectively, was the highlight of the ‘Loveland’ Follies reenactment.
And for “the girls” – this was the incredible part of the first act. Linda Lavin sings “Broadway Baby” straight on with chutzpah, but no sign of stage ego, and almost stopped the show. She moved beautifully and sounded great and later, while signing autographs, modestly admitted her surprise that the audience had responded so positively. Elaine Paige has a much more British declamatory style, which worked as she suggested an intriguingly complex character in sharp, brief strokes. She sold “I’m Still Here” with verve through her own rhythms, rather than those of the orchestra, though she couldn’t completely erase her English accent. Terri White was wonderful singing and leading the “Who’s that Woman?” dance. This was the showstopper of the first act because of her exuberance, but also because the reunited women are shadowed and then begin to merge with their younger selves. Susan Watson and Terrence Currier were charming as the aging married dancers soft shoeing “Rain on the Roof.” Régine tried hard with “Ah, Paris!” but she might as well have sung it in French for what I could decipher of lyrics I’ve heard dozens of times. On the other hand, Rosalind Elias was heartbreaking in “One Last Kiss”, her voice unable to ascend to the coloratura notes delivered by Leah Horowitz as her younger self. The lyrics in that song sum up the entire sense of discovery and resignation that all the characters have to face in order to move on with their lives. Each of these performers has over forty years of stage experience and that cannot be faked.
Some of the numbers in the first act seemed to come out of nowhere physically – there were times when it was difficult to figure out if we were in a different part of that crumbling old theatre – and, unlike the songs of the four principals, there wasn’t the same flow between the dramatic conflict and the songs. However, this made complete sense in the second act because that is designed as a vaudeville show. The sets, lighting, and the showgirl costumes were gorgeous. There were always a couple of showgirls in the rafters, in the background, moving slightly, as the ghosts of the past that those in the present cannot completely overcome. The sound design was especially noteworthy because of some chilling echo effects as the principal quartet of performers were losing themselves in the past before being shaken back into the present.
"Follies" plays through June 19
"Follies" plays through June 19