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Sondheim's 'Follies' is a triumph on Broadway

A revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" has arrived on Broadway just in time for Halloween. It's perfect for the season — it's got ghosts, skeletons bursting out of closets and a haunted house. It's also a treat.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" has arrived on Broadway just in time for Halloween. It's perfect for the season — it's got ghosts, skeletons bursting out of closets and a haunted house. It's also a treat.

A veteran cast that includes Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell backed by a 28-piece orchestra lends this masterpiece about middle-aged angst a lusciousness.

One after the other, performers step up to produce thrilling versions of song including "Broadway Baby" (Jayne Houdyshell), "I'm Still Here" (Elaine Paige), "Could I Leave You?" (Maxwell) and "Losing My Mind" (Peters). It's head-spinning stuff, one delicious bite of candy followed by another at the Marquis Theatre, where the show opened Monday night.

James Goldman's story focuses on a reunion of former showgirls, performers who were featured in various editions of a musical revue not unlike the Ziegfeld Follies, which flourished on Broadway between the two world wars.

The party takes place in a dilapidated theater awaiting the wrecking ball and set designer Derek McLane has chosen to spread out his vision to the audience — the balconies and walls of the Marquis are draped in huge molding cloth and piles of dusty ropes. Columns are crumbling, paint is peeling and there's even the sound of dripping.

Add to this the real stench of regret. The musical uses the stories of two unhappily married couples — the upper-crust Phyllis (Maxwell) and Ben (Ron Raines); the middle-class Sally (Peters) and Buddy (Danny Burstein) — as they return to the theater where their unhappy romances began.

Each married the wrong person, or think they did. What's worse, all four have never gotten over their youthful dreams, particularly when it comes to love and romance. The title's double meaning soon becomes clear.

"Ben and I don't do things anymore — we say things," Phyllis complains at one point. "When we're young, there is no limit to the roles we hope to play. Star, mother, hostess. I wanted to do it all but I learned to choose. And suddenly our selections are chiseled in marble."

Also present are each reunion member's younger selves, ghosts from another era when everything seemed possible. The show depicts past and present colliding, hopes and dreams confronting realities. It is not a good advertisement for aging gracefully.

Director Eric Schaeffer, who began this production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but has had to introduce a few new actors when earlier ones dropped out on the way to Broadway, smartly uses all the stage, keeping both ghosts and humans in a sort of graceful dance. To make it even more complex, the ghosts sometimes jump into the dialogue, but this cast doesn't seem rattled.

Schaeffer has enriched the visual appeal by adding leggy Follies girls silently gliding in the background and on two platforms, sort of the ghosts of show-biz past. One odd note is struck when these Vegas-looking creatures with huge headdresses sometimes stop, stand and face the back wall, as if they were mimicking those little robot vacuums that get confused and bury themselves in an alcove for hours.

The gloom is lifted every so often by a faded former actress stepping forward with a song and dance. Mary Beth Peil belts out an ooh-la-la "Ah, Paris!" while Paige's "I'm Still Here" is a sassy cabaret triumph. All the ladies combine with their younger selves for a lovely "Who's That Woman?" — a celebration of female survival. Choreographer Warren Carlyle has even added a few missteps and jokes in his dances as the women try to remember their steps.

Sondheim has written a two-tiered score that contrasts the disillusionment of the lead roles with traditional musical comedy numbers that recall famous theater composers of the past — from Rudolf Friml to George Gershwin to Cole Porter to Harold Arlen.

The darkness of the set and the sadness of the themes suddenly explode during the "Loveland" sequence, in which the main characters' neuroses and disillusionments are performed vaudeville-style under garish lights and fluffy roses. It's a dreamlike burst of color and yet remains vaguely sinister.

Peters, who knows her way around a Sondheim score, is wonderful as the pining, overweight housewife Sally — she manages to hide her knock-out figure in Act I — and delivers a crushingly pretty "Losing My Mind." But Maxwell in a slinky gown by costume designer Gregg Barnes is marvelous, alternating from feigned disinterest to passive aggressive to ferocious in her great numbers "Could I Leave You?" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."

The guys are great, too. Burstein seems at first a guiless puppy as Buddy, but his internal frustrations emerge in his physical take on "The Right Girl." Raines as Ben is all world-weary grace and elegance, until he collapses at the end to reveal the weak man beneath.

The younger versions of the four main characters — Christian Delcroix, Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott and Nick Verina — are none too shabby themselves, especially in the Loveland sequence where they overlap melodies, fight with their older selves and dance up a storm.

"Come on, let's go home," Phyllis says at the end of the show to Ben. But it's been such a good and tuneful production that you may hope no one listens to her and the ghosts stick around just a little longer.