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A CurtainUp Review
This homage to musical theater in the 1930's and 1940s opens slowly with what might have been a curtain —- looking like a painter's dirty drop cloth — raised to reveal a proscenium arch decayed by time and negligence. A rumbling sound from the orchestra evokes the ominous noise made by a demolition crew. Show girls in very elaborate costumes —- no cost, nor sequin was spared by costume designer Gregg Barnes —- parade across Derek McClane's appropriately stark, three-tiered set. What follows is an evening of some of Sondheim's best songs (I know, I know. It's hard to choose) played admirably by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the musical direction of James Moore.
Theater lore has it that a black and white photograph that appeared in the November, 1960 Life served as the inspiration for Follies. In that photo, legendary silent movie star Gloria Swanson stands in the rubble of what was New York's palatial Roxy Theater. Both the glamorous Swanson and the Roxy (built in 1927) symbolized musical theater as it was in New York in the '30's and the '40's, an era that was sadly coming to an end as magnificent old theaters were being torn down and the land turned into parking lots.
What's going on? It's 1971. We are at the Weismann Theater, (stand-in for the soon to be razed Roxy) home since 1918 of the Follies. Proprietor Dimitri Weismann has invited all the showgirls who performed in his revues and their spouses to one last on-stage party. Their ages range from middle age to 80s.
As with all reunions, some memories are joyful others painful. Two performers from the Follies of 1941, former roommates, Sally (Bernadette Peters in a perfect performance) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell, well cast and also perfect as the cold and calculating trophy wife), and their husbands, Buddy (in a break-your-heart performance by Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines, excellent) are joined by their younger selves: Young Sally, Young Phyllis, Young Buddy, and Young Ben. For those who are not familiar with the book, this point is far from clear. What have we become thirty years later, the four middle-aged characters ask themselves. Their reminiscences begin breezily enough but soon turn deeper and darker as the subject turns to love.
In his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim describes Follies as "an orgy of pastiche" which he defines as "fond imitations, unlike parodies or satires, which make comment on the work or the style being imitated." Follies includes pastiches of such brilliant composers and lyricists as Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, Dorothy Fields, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rogers; for example, "Broadway Baby" from the 1920's Follies favors songs before the crash, when the world was full of optimism.
Bernadette Peters as the first of the former showgirls to appear on stage, looks particularly diminutive in a bright red dress with her hair pulled back. She fills the cavernous Eisenhower Theater with her clear-as-a-bell voice. No matter how often you have heard the songs she sings ("Don't Look At Me," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," " In Buddy's Eyes" and "Too Many Mornings") Peters' interpretations bring little surprises to the lyrics as she uses unexpected phrasing and small motions with her head, her hands, even a backward kick. In the second act, dressed in an exquisite deep purple gown with an off-the-shoulder band of sequins, she squeezes every bit of emotion out of "Losing My Mind."
Tall, blonde, slender, leggy and elegant Jan Maxwel lis appropriately cold and calculating Phyllis. Could there be ice in her veins you wonder as she narrates/sings the story of her bored, vapid life in "Could I Leave You?" She too surprises in the second act when, in the section called Loveland, (a wonderful tribute to 1930's movie choreographer Busby Berkeley's style) she sings and dances with tremendous energy, particularly in the comic tongue-twister "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."
So too with the other Weizmann "girls." They come out on stage one by one to strut their stuff. In a costume probably better suited to a drinks party on the Upper East Side, a brassy Linda Lavin belts her one and only solo, "Broadway Baby." In a tribute to vaudeville, Terrence Currier and Susan Watson dance splendidly together as the Whitmans, a couple who met at the Follies, married, and kept dancing by running an Arthur Murray franchise. Currier, whose parents were vaudevillians, does an all too short tap dance that received a well-deserved round of applause.
As Stella Deems, the Follies girl who gave up show biz for a life of helping her husband run a store, Terri White leads the girls in "Who's That Woman," a hearty song-and-dance that stops the show. What is truly special about that number is the genuine joy these old hoofers project. They're laughing at themselves and having a blast. Kudos to choreographer Warren Carlyle for letting them have so much fun.
Elaine Paige's Carlotta Campion, the former showgirl who goes on to be a tv star brings humor to her role. She's a vamp, she's camp, and she belts the hell out of "I'm Still Here," Sondheim's wonderful ode to the staying power no matter what of actors and actresses no longer in the blush of youth.
Vignettes by other former Follies girls are less successful. One-time nightclub owner Régine as Solange is amateurish. Michael Haines as Roscoe, the emcee who is supposed to get the show rolling, makes you wonder if and when Follies is going to get better. It does, particularly in the second act when we are transported to Loveland — a place where everything is sweet and nice and gooey — until Buddy and Ben tell you what's on their minds. Their revelations about good and bad in their lives give both actors the opportunity to deliver their solos with powerful emotions.
Danny Burstein as Buddy shows his huge range, vocally and physically. He is the definitive Buddy. He does angry, sad and the clown who is crying on the inside equally well and without clichés, particularly in "Buddy's Blues" for which he is joined by acrobatic and comic dancers Kiira Schmidt and Jenifer Foote. Ron Raines as Ben, the bigwig with a roving eye, gives a forceful performance throughout that does not obliterate sympathy once his true soul is revealed in the final number "Live, Love, Laugh."
Director Eric Schaeffer who has been working on Sondheim musicals for two decades including a fine production of Follies a few years ago at Signature Theatre and, through June 12th Side by Side by Sondheim, takes a very straight-forward approach to this production. It is as though he knows the music is glorious, the lyrics brilliant and that nothing should get in the way of either. He has the actors face front and sing out. When the voices are good, as they are with very few exceptions, this approach serves the songs and the audience well. Granted, there are times when one wonders why the characters singing duets are placed so far apart or why Carlotta gives her big number "I'm Still Here," sitting in a chair surrounded by a cadre of gay waiters. (Do her feet hurt?)
The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater is, architecturally, the antithesis of what the Roxy and many other theaters built in that era were. It is soul-less but Sondheim's glorious music and lyrics, Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations and the roster of big names who strut their stuff fills the house with a kind of warmth that endures. Like good musicals.