Theatre Review: “Follies”

“FOLLIES

By Don Heckman

I finally got around to seeing Follies last Thursday night.  I’d had some reservations about what to expect from a revival of what is, by almost any standard, one of the seminal American musical theatre pieces.  But when our dear friend Susan Watson Wright, an enchanting member of the cast, offered us some house seats, how could I resist.

The current revival had received rave reviews from its original performance at the Kennedy Center, after the opening of its six month run on Broadway, and after its Los Angeles premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre on May 3.  But Bernadette Peters had dropped out after the Broadway run, choosing not to be part of the L.A. cast.  And one couldn’t help but wonder what impact this had on the creative communal interaction among the large cast.

As it turned out, no worries.  About anything.  Follies is already being touted as a favorite to win a Tony Award in the best revival category, and the show’s seven other Tony nominations cover acting, costumes, sound and lighting.  All with excellent reason, as the Ahmanson production thoroughly confirmed.  Suffice to say that no dollar was left unspent, no stone left unturned in creating a performance brilliantly illuminating Follies’ stunning combination of music and story.

The setting is a 1971 reunion  party for the showgirls of Weissman’s Follies.  Among the party goers, a collection of aging performers – many of whom are seeing each other for the first time in decades.  And some of whom are still captivated by their early love affairs, despite having moved on to other relationships – most notably two unhappily married couples, Phyllis and Ben, and Sally and Buddy.

Book writer James Goldman’s story has been transformed by Stephen Sondheim’s stunning score into musical theatre at its finest.  In classic fashion, one illuminating song after another advances the plot while simultaneously providing a vehicle for several brilliant solo performances from the stellar cast.

Among them are some now-legendary Sondheim songs: “Broadway Baby,” sung in explosively dynamic fashion by Tony-nominated Jayne Houdyshell; “I’m Still Here,” in a superb rendering by the U.K.’s theatre star, Elaine Page; “Could I Leave You?” delivered in convincing fashion by Tony-nominated Jan Maxwell; and the “folly” song “Losing My Mind” sung and performed emotionally by Victoria Clark.

Other songs were equally vital in bringing the story to life: “The Road You Didn’t Take”; and the three other final, individual “folly” songs, sung by the other members of the two couples, “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” by Danny Burstein; “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” by Maxwell; and the climactic “Live, Laugh, Love” by Tony-nominated Ron Raines.

And there’s much more.  Including “Who’s That Woman,” a wild, choreographic delight in which the elder showgirls go step for step with the young images of their distant past.  As well as the startlingly dramatic visual transformations – some of them cinematic in scope – accompanying the “Loveland” segment that closes the performance.

In short, it was just about everything one could ask for in musical theatre.  Follies has been – as I suggested above – one of the definitive words/music/dance works of the American theatre since it first arrived on Broadway in 1971.  I didn’t see that version, but it would be hard to imagine a more convincing production, on all counts, than the show that runs at the Ahmanson through June 9.  It simply doesn’t get any better than this.

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