Kennedy Center’s ‘Follies’ steps onto Broadway with fleet feet

September 12, 2011

Reaffirming that an out-of-town workout is still a show’s optimal fitness program, the Kennedy Center revival of “Follies,” seen in Washington last spring, has landed on Broadway as a fleeter-footed, more consistently exhilarating incarnation of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s masterstroke 1971 musical.

The weakling elements evident in Washington last spring have been resiliently bulked up. The improvements begin with the pivotal performance of Bernadette Peters, whose lovelorn Sally had seemed shallowly conceived. Now, in the Marquis Theatre, where the production officially opened Monday night, the veteran Sondheim interpreter has found a poignant core for Sally, a woman awash in regrets-soaked delusion.

Her rendition of Sally’s torch-song pastiche, the glorious “Losing My Mind,” might not garner the loudest applause on an evening when audiences cheer the various deserving stars often — and no group more than the assorted mature ladies led by Terri White, who tap-dance with elan to the delicious “Who’s That Woman?” Still, “Losing My Mind” is a stunner: Peters sings as if in the grip of a near catatonic spell, the lyrics enveloping her in a choking swoon of despair.

“Follies” is the portrait of two marriages in extremis, bonds that are coming apart as the couples mingle with other show-business fossils at a reunion of ex-showgirls on the stage of a grand old theater, about to be turned into a parking lot. If the show, set in the early ’70s, once seemed to be about decay and loss of faith in a crumbling society, this new version, directed by Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, for the most part wears a kinder, more sentimental face.

This softer “Follies” lacks the shattering edge of the original, when director Harold Prince and his choreographer Michael Bennett evoked in the young ghosts of the Follies girls who float across the stage the terrifying sense of the ravages of time and the approach of death. The creative team behind this production has made the calculation that old age ain’t so bad after all; it’s sort of a baby boomer’s vision of “Follies.”

So if the evening doesn’t resonate with much aching authority, it’s packed with entertainment. These dames still know how to light up a stage. And there’s much more to savor in this treatment since it played a sold-out run in the Eisenhower Theater. The delights now include a lighter, tighter portrayal by Elaine Paige of the boozy floozy Carlotta. She’s turned the has-been Carlotta into a funnier, and therefore sexier, creature, and her barn-burning survivor song, “I’m Still Here,” really is a show-stopper.

What’s happened is that everyone is now playing at the level established by the Washington installment’s two standard-bearers, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein. As before, Maxwell’s bitter Phyllis — Sally’s erstwhile romantic rival — cuts a striking, smashing figure, and Burstein reprises his invigoratingly anguished turn as Sally’s husband, Buddy. Ron Raines, too, feels like a better fit than previously as Phyllis’s steely, worldly mate, Ben.

But perhaps the shrewdest changes have come in Schaeffer’s recasting of two key supporting roles: Mary Beth Peil now plays the Gallic chanteuse, Solange, and the exuberant Jayne Houdyshell replaces Linda Lavin as Hattie, who delivers the show’s signature anthem of backstage survival, “Broadway Baby.”

Houdyshell’s buoyant energy and frumpy countenance among the aging former glamour girls prove unlikely assets here; she looks as if she should still be playing Albert’s mother Mae in “Bye Bye Birdie,” as she did in a Broadway revival two years ago. But when she strides downstage for her solo, bathed in Natasha Katz’s brilliant lighting, Houdyshell seems to pick the production up on her shoulders and lift it onto a more ebullient tier.

The pressures exerted on “Follies” by some of Goldman’s starchy, dated episodes of marital whining have been relieved by Schaeffer’s sure-handed pacing and Carlyle’s crackling dances. Even some of the slightest vignettes are more effective, as with, for example, the quicksilver rendition of “Rain on the Roof” by Susan Watson and another of the production’s newcomers, Don Correia. The opera singer Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz, who plays her younger doppelganger, also create a moving duet of “One More Kiss,” accompanied splendidly by conductor James Moore and a 28-piece orchestra.

“Follies” executes a head-spinning leap after Act 1 (the original played without intermission) when the four principals — Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben — are transported into a Ziegfeld (here called Weismann) Follies of the mind. They’re each given a number inspired by their psychic paralysis: Buddy sings about loving a woman who doesn’t love him; Phyllis, about an inability to reconcile her younger and older selves. It’s a daring, though less-than-perfect, segue from what comes before. Still, with excellent assists from costume designer Gregg Barnes and set designer Derek McLane, who wrap this artificial “Loveland” in sublimely ridiculous pulchritude, the four songs dazzlingly survey a landscape carpeted in discord and disappointment.

The sunny solidity of Schaeffer’s staging doesn’t quite prepare us for the cold ambiguity of the musical’s final moments. And yet, this “Follies” is a becoming mosaic, its pleasures amplified by the prodigious talent on display, up and down the rickety kick line.

Follies

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Warren Carlyle; sound, Kai Harada; music direction, James Moore; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick. With Loralee Gayer, Christian Delcroix, Nick Verina, Kirsten Scott, Frederick Strother, David Sabin, Florence Lacey. About 2 hours 40 minutes. At the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York. Visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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