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'follies Finally Making Its Way To The Tube : All-star Cast Brings Electricity To The Show

March 13, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Fantastic rehearsal. Pretty good show.

Theater people will adore every minute of " 'Follies' in Concert" (9 p.m. Friday, Channels 28, 15), but the first part is the gold. That's when director Michael Houldey takes us backstage to watch Stephen Sondheim and friends hammer together a platform version of Sondheim's 1971 musical, "Follies," in a mere four days.

We're told that the entire process took two years. Sondheim had always hated the original-cast "Follies" album, which Capitol had shoehorned onto one disc. RCA Victor's Thomas Z. Shepard offered him the chance to record a "definitive" two-record set with an all-star cast.

Next came the idea of recording the album before a live audience at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic as the pit band. Finally, they decided to let in the TV cameras (see Lawrence Christon's adjoining interview with producer Ellen M. Krass).

Fewer distractions would have produced a better record album. The new "Follies" set won't supplant the Dorothy Collins-Alexis Smith album in the hearts of those who love the show. Still, the TV viewer can feel the electricity that the "Follies" performance had last September as a theater event--a glamorous kickoff for a Broadway season that never happened.

And it's a kick to sit in on rehearsals. Maybe there was bickering and ranking that the camera didn't catch. But Sondheim's All Stars (Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, George Hearne, Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, others as well) seem to be absolutely high on the process of knocking out a show in only four days.

"It's quite mad," says Remick, trying not to bobble Sondheim's "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." "There isn't time to weave in the little pieces," Cook sighs, as she tiptoes through "In Buddy's Eyes."

"Jeez," says Elaine Stritch, listening to herself in "Broadway Baby"--"I sound like Lionel Stander." George Hearn works out his top-hat business in "Live, Laugh, Love" (director Herbert Ross doesn't want them to just stand there and sing) and claims to be scared to death. "You don't want to mess up."

In fact, they're as excited as kids putting on a camp show. No time for second thoughts--just do it. Sondheim's up too. He manages not to wince as Licia Albanese goes off-key in "One More Kiss." He lights up as Comden and Green get the kissy-face business absolutely right in "Rain on the Roof" and even throw in some of their own. He has been writing musicals for 30 years, but is still entranced to think that he's working with Comden and Green.

On the fourth day the show is as good as it's going to be (Ross has had to go home to California on some kind of personal emergency), so they get ready to go out there. Backstage nerves, backstage gags. Adolph Green quotes the old Jew who told his friends "I'd rather be with you than with the best people."

Philharmonic Hall goes wild at everything they do. And they're all terrific, no question. But some of them are wrong for "Follies." Mandy Patinkin, for instance, is much too young for Buddy. Rather than a failure-face with a worn-out grin, he gives us a manic sprite. "Buddy's Blues" comes out like something Joel Grey might have done in "Cabaret."

Elaine Stritch commands "Broadway Baby" like a traffic cop, but the number you can hear her singing in your head is "I'm Still Here"--which goes to Burnett, who seems too refined for it. Cook sings "Losing My Mind" more purely than Dorothy Collins did, but it's not so easy to see the character--Sally Durant, who used to have so much pep.

Only Hearn brings a new finding to this problematic show, changing Ben from an empty misanthrope (as in the original, when John McMartin played him) to a man who did, once, want to live . . . laugh . . . love.

The crowd goes crazy, however. The curtain calls go on and on, just like the Met, and backstage everybody screams with relief, just like the camp show. "We didn't fall down!" Hardly. But if they ever revive "Follies" for a real Broadway run, all-stars may not be the way to go.

("Follies in Concert," airing on PBS under the "Great Performances" banner, also will be seen Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on Channel 50.)

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