Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Follies 2011 - FABULOUS

Once a decade a person should see Sondheim’s Follies. Some call the book “dark” and others say it is poorly written; but no one disputes that the music is haunting, beautiful, compelling, and evocative. And, when the show is well directed and well choreographed, the story seems to tighten up a bit too.

I’ve heard multiple cast recordings of Follies and have seen scenes and heard songs performed from it dozens of times, but in 2001 I finally got to see it on Broadway. I was enchanted. First of all, there are some complex (if habitually unhappy) characters and there are amazing songs. And the 2001 cast was star studded: Treat Williams (still gorgeous at the time), Gregory Harrison (also easy on the eyes), Blythe Danner, Judith Ivy, Betty Garrett, and Polly Bergen were all on the same stage for the same show! Sondheim’s music performed by superstars of stage, film and television all on the Broadway stage was a ShoMo’s wet dream! Betty Garrett soft sold (but very effectively) “Broadway Baby”, Polly Bergen gave dramatic gravitas to a song that is often just an excuse to show off a singer’s “pipes” and Treat Williams, much to my surprise, was a really good singer! Judith Ivy and Blythe Danner might have been odd choices for Sally and Phyllis, but even if their singing voices didn’t quite measure up to Broadway musical theatre standards, their acting more than compensated for it (I’ve always said I prefer to hear actors sing than see singers act). So, even though the costumes, lighting, and sets were over all uninspiring, I was all the same thrilled with the production and very happy to have experienced it in person.

But THEN there was the 2011 Broadway production. OMG! I saw it tonight and would gladly (at full price) see it again tomorrow!

Danny Burstein was maybe the most sympathetic, likable “Buddy” in Follies history. He’s no Treat Williams in the looks department, but his physical grace (he must have been a dancer at one point in his life), his musical talent, and the gentleness he brought the character were nothing short of genius!

Ron Raines, for me, was the worst of the best. He was adequate and his acting was believable but he just didn’t sell it like the others did. Honestly, I think Gregory Harrison was better ten years ago in the role.

Jan Maxwell played Phyllis and if she is not nominated for a Tony there is NO justice in the universe. The woman’s power (not aggression, but merely presence) completely overshadowed Bernadette Peters (who received top billing, but it should be given to Maxwell at once). Her singing, her dancing, her acting, her energy, her physical presence, her facial expressions were all flawless. She wasn’t scene stealing; she never broke character or any way dismissed the importance of anyone in the ensemble cast, and yet, her radiance almost hid the lesser beings on stage entirely from view! Surely, SHE is exactly what Sondheim had in mind 40 years ago. Finally, the REAL Phyllis emerges from the shadows!

Bernadette Peters’ squeaky voice was cute and predictable. She played the frail, delusional Sally very traditionally and adequately. The one time that she really lived into her diva image was when she sang “Loosing My Mind.” It was a dramatic masterpiece, and yet she had so underperformed by then, the audience didn’t seem to appreciate (or even notice really) how good that one moment of her performance was. The audience’s judgment was repeated during the curtain call. Maxwell was the penultimate cast member to come out and was greeted with thunderous applause, shouts, cat calls, and riotous enthusiasm. Then finally, Bernadette came out and while she was greeted warmly, the response felt lack-luster in comparison to the ovation Jan Maxwell received.

Mary Beth Peil’s “Solange” was acceptable, but I seem to remember Jane White’s performance of that character in 2001 being much stronger.

Terri White’s performance as Stella was a triumph! I used to go to Rose’s Turn in the Village to hear Terri sing. She released a CD which I had her sign. Her deep, smoky, bluesy alto voice could unseat Zeus himself, rendering his thunderbolts useless. I read a couple of years ago that Terri had fallen on difficult times but had made a comeback and it was thrilling to see her in this show. She looked better than ever, sounded as good as ever, was funny, and commanded the stage with her tap and jazz moves (I don’t remember Carol Woods’ Stella in 2001 moving much at all, or even being able to in her cumbersome costume).
(On a side note – Joane Worley performed the role, I believe, in 2007. I didn’t see her performance, but so wish I had. She undoubtedly brought some comedic skill to the part, but it would be nearly impossible to outshine Terri White as Stella).

Jayne Houdyshell is a long time theatre veteran, though maybe not as well known as the others I’ve mentioned. But her lack of celebrity status is in no way because she is anything less than brilliant on the boards! I never expected to see “Broadway Baby” performed in a way that I liked as well as Betty Garrett’s performance in 2001, but Ms. Houdyshell won me over instantly. She lacked the glamour or grace of the other women, but rather than allowing that to be a hindrance she used it to her full advantage. She was comedic without being clownish, moved with more confidence and purpose than her body shape suggested possible, and sang as powerfully and masterfully as any of the other creative geniuses in the cast.

Elaine Paige as Carlotta was another high point. She played the aging sex kitten perfectly and performed “I’m Still Here” as well as anyone I’ve ever heard. Still, as good as she was, I seem to recall Polly Bergen being at least as good or maybe better. And for me, though not nearly the singer Paige is, the quintessential Carlotta will always be Yvonne De Carlo. When Carlotta sings, “First you’re another doe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp”…that line will never sound as powerful as it sounded from an actor who had been a B-movie vixen and then Lillie Munster before accepting the role of a diva whose star was fading in Follies. Yvonne WAS Carlotta! Still, Polly in 2001 was amazing and Elaine in 2011 was a very close runner up. I guess Polly was a better actor and Elaine was a better singer…the actor sang well and the singer actor well, but I’ve already disclosed by personal bias.

Florence Lacy had a small role (“Sandra”), but I was excited because I just saw her 10 months ago in Sunset Blvd (in the leading role) at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. So in my geekiest fashion I was all, “Hey, it’s HER…we just saw her in something else a few months ago.”

Finally, I must praise the 81 year old Rosalind Elias (“Heidi”). Ms. Elias studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and then continued her studies in Italy, and has had an impressive opera career. In her 50+ year career she has received Grammy awards and has performed in every major opera house in the world, but she now proves that there are always new goals to reach as she makes her Broadway debut with Follies! And not for nothing, but her mezzo-soprano voice is still rich and wonderful. She’s still got it.

The 2001 production had bigger “stars”…but the 2011 production had better choreography, sets, lighting, costumes, and direction. And rather than a collection of stars sharing a stage, this production was a true ensemble cast working together to make magic. I loved it 10 years ago, and I loved it 100 times more tonight. I hope I get to see an even better production of Follies in 2021 (though I wonder how that could be possible).

---Durrell Watkins
Oct. 19, 2011

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