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'Follies' Remains Marvelous Contradiction

Theater Review

June 18, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arguably the best score ever written for an extended midlife crisis, Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" practically invented a new entertainment form when it stunned Broadway in 1971. Call it "musical tragicomedy."

That's not as paradoxical as it sounds, because the emotional trials and tribulations of this melancholy show's four post-menopausal main characters, lightened by Sondheim's mordant wit and peerless craftsmanship, make "Follies" a marvelous contradiction: an invigorating bummer.

The most high-concept of musicals, "Follies" has another built-in twist that helps rescue the creaky and uneven but affecting new Reprise! Production running at the Wadsworth Theatre. Set in a crumbling Broadway theater that's soon to make way for a parking lot, "Follies" tracks the bittersweet reunion of a gaggle of aging showgirls who formerly sang and danced together in the glittering Ziegfeld-style spectaculars that once ruled the Great White Way.

Worn faces and weathered voices are the essence of "Follies' " brutally anti-nostalgic point of view. And though there's more graying talent here than in a seniors' golf tournament, Father Time has bestowed his blessings and burdens on the cast unevenly, just as he does in "Follies."

So while it's easy to marvel at how Carol Lawrence (the original Maria in "West Side Story") has retained her willowy elegance through the years, or at Amanda McBroom's va-va-voom playfulness in "Ah, Paris!" it's also easy--up to a point--to smile affectionately when one of these old pros croaks out a high note or flubs a verse. What this short-run production lacks in polish it mostly compensates for in pathos. Happily, of the four principal performers, three are keepers. Vikki Carr, a three-time Grammy winner, gets the plum role of Sally Durant, the preternaturally perky ex-hoofer who still pines for dour ex-beau and current Manhattan power broker Ben Stone (Bob Gunton). Sally's husband, Buddy (Harry Groener) is a boyish good-time Charlie, expert at keeping his darker emotions at bay with rim-shot ripostes.

Supple in voice and spirit, Groener and Carr shed years before our eyes. Gunton has a suave insouciance on numbers like "The Road You Didn't Take"--until his haunted gaze gives away his crippling (and deeply moving) despair.

Less captivating is Patty Duke, who's cast against good judgment (if not against type) as Ben's long-suffering wife Phyllis. "Follies" is Duke's stage singing and dancing debut, which is like taking up mountain climbing on the north face of Everest. But Duke's raspy earnestness and old-school grit may finally win you over (as they did me), singing and dancing be damned--which is no slight on Kay Cole's snappy choreography.

In a smart Brechtian conceit, the four aging leads are trailed throughout the show by youthful versions of their plumper, richer, more overtly neurotic older selves (well played by Jean Louisa Kelly, Tia Riebling, Kevin Earley and Austin Miller). The old couples flirt, fight, reminisce, get sloshed and reunite with their respective mates just in time for Phyllis to utter a doozy of a platitude about how "hope doesn't grow on trees, we have to make our own." Groan. Fortunately, such triteness is atypical of "Follies' " life lessons about the delusions we too often mistake for love and success.

It says much for Reprise!, the 5-year-old L.A. musical theater series, that it summons but seldom succumbs to "Follies' " bipolar mood swings. As future New York Times critic Frank Rich noted 30 years ago in reviewing the show's pre-Broadway tryout, these over-the-hill chorines and balding stage-door Johnnies are basically attending their own funeral, witnessing the death of a popular art form and a worldview that hailed from a sunnier, less self-conscious America. Apart from a couple of solemn stretches, director Arthur Allan Seidelman and company manage to keep the evening from turning into a wake.

Ray Klausen's set design conveys the correctly elegiac mood, framing the Wadsworth proscenium with a tattered Art Deco curtain and a truncated staircase buttressed by a pair of golden caryatids straight out of an Erte catalog.

And when the action flags or a note hits the stage with a clunk, we always have Sondheim's mesmerizing score, beautifully performed by a bulked-up 19-piece Reprise! orchestra, skillfully conducted by musical director Gerald Sternbach.

From torchy standards like "Losing My Mind," to Ben and Sally's heartbreaking duet of missed chances, "Too Many Mornings," to Donna McKechnie's less-is-definitely more rendition of the survival anthem "I'm Still Here," to note-perfect pastiches of silly Jazz Age ditties, this is surely one of the dozen or so greatest song cycles America ever has produced. Its vitality reminds us, as "Follies" does, that what's most cherishable in life never really gets old.

*

"Follies," Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends June 23. $30-$75. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

Vikki Carr...Sally Durant Plummer

Patty Duke...Phyllis Rogers Stone

Bob Gunton...Benjamin Stone

Harry Groener...Buddy Plummer

Carol Lawrence, Melissa Driscol, Grover Dale, Trevor Brackney, Abby Feldman, Stephen Reed, Jean Louisa Kelly, Carole Cook, Amanda McBroom, Stella Stevens, Tia Riebling, Kevin Earley, Austin Miller, Justine Johnson, Barbara Chiofalo, Mary Jo Catlett, Billy Barnes, Liz Torres, Carol Swarbrick, Donna McKechnie, Warren Berlinger, Ken Page...Other roles

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. Set by Ray Klausen. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Costumes by Randy Gardell. Sound by Philip G. Allen. Musical direction by Gerald Sternbach. Choreography by Kay Cole. Stage manager Vernon Willet.

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