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Theater Review

Haunting, Powerful 'Follies'

Stephen Sondheim's musical returns to Broadway in a spare yet compelling fashion.

April 06, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — "I haven't seen New York in 30 years," says Judith Ivey's sweet, sad Sally, the chief nostalgia victim in "Follies." The musical hasn't seen New York in 30 years either, in terms of a full, greedily anticipated Broadway revival.

With a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book (ever problematic, often revised) by James Goldman, the 1971 landmark may have been a financial folly in its day. The production extravagance, ironically deployed--the show unfolds like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" inside "Ziegfeld Follies of 1923"--didn't come cheaply.

Yet there's more than one way to enter the shadows of this "mysterioso" universe, as Sondheim called it. At its most insinuating, the version that opened Wednesday night at the Belasco, a Roundabout Theatre Company presentation staged by director Matthew Warchus ("Art"), proves that "Follies" doesn't live or die on its budget.

It's a show about how we remember and misremember the past. Warchus heightens the past-and-present-intermingled quality with a few simple strokes, some carefully framed and shiver-inducing images of characters haunted by their younger, idealized selves. These ghosts have always stalked "Follies," watching or mirroring the veteran Weissman Follies performers trotting out their routines one more time. Here, their presence is especially strong.

It's not a wholly memorable revival. The central disillusioned foursome--Ivey, Blythe Danner, Gregory Harrison and Treat Williams--has its drawbacks, though Danner and especially Ivey are wonderful in the book scenes. Crushingly, the formidable Polly Bergen (as Carlotta, the role created by Yvonne De Carlo) gets to sing the survival anthem "I'm Still Here" only once, which nonetheless may be enough for a featured-actress Tony Award. (Kathleen Freeman of "The Full Monty" is already plotting revenge.)

Yet for its most satisfying supporting turns, as well as a surprising streak of delicacy, this is a "Follies" worth seeing.

The setting is a decaying Broadway house slated for demolition. The Belasco's interior has been intentionally distressed, right down to the scraped and peeling paint on the exit doors. The prologue's first image of a ghostly Weissman showgirl, emerging from the darkness to the tune of Sondheim's "All Things Bright and Beautiful," is at once creepy and stunning--just right.

Thirty years earlier, Sally and Phyllis were Weissman girls. Buddy loved Sally; Sally loved Ben; Ben loved Sally and Phyllis, or at least made love to both.

Sally (Ivey) married Buddy (Williams), who has a woman on the side. Phyllis (Danner) finds herself in a long-calcifying, affair-ridden marriage to Ben (Harrison), former diplomat, a fount of self-loathing. Sally still carries the torch for Ben, and her hopes for a deeper sort of reunion provide "Follies" with what little narrative propulsion it has.

The show is a fantasia of regrets, spiced by song-and-dance comment on, or counterpoint to, the central dilemmas. It's a searching musical that creates and then selectively disrupts a state of longing. The original Goldman libretto damned Sally and Buddy to a kind of purgatory of pain, and improbably, offered hope of a happier future for Phyllis and Ben. Here, it's more of a draw for both, and director Warchus intentionally lets "Follies" land on an effectively unresolved note.

There are many first-rate things here. Along with Bergen, the standout Weissman alums include Betty Garrett's wry, easygoing Hattie ("Broadway Baby"); the touching ballroom dancers embodied by Donald Saddler and Marge Champion; Jane White's Solange La Fitte ("Ah, Paris!"); and, six decades after she played Laurey in "Oklahoma!" Joan Roberts, who sings "One More Kiss" with her younger self (Brooke Sunny Moriber).

Though neither Ivey nor Danner can really handle their songs, they bring real shading to their roles. Harrison's Ben fares very well with his climactic "Live, Laugh, Love," though he lacks bite en route; so does Williams' hard-working but oddly indistinct Buddy. Tough parts, to be sure: Even in this latest incarnation, Goldman's book doesn't give the actors a lot to go on, once everybody's primary discontents have been established.

Sondheim's score is another matter--a pastiche achievement unlike any other in the American musical. This revival, buoyed by typically inventive choreography from Kathleen Marshall (with a big nod to Charles Walters), looks big, even with scenic designer Mark Thompson's skeletal creations. Yet it sounds rather small. The score has been reworked--however brilliantly, by the original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick--for a mere 14 musicians, and you miss the epic aural heft of the original.

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