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Near the top of anyone’s list of the musicals which changed the art form forever is Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” With a story line wrapped in the murk of mid-life crises, rosy nostalgia, and personal upheaval, it spoke to theater-goers of the late 20th century as an echo of the times. It speaks still, its universality playing out the disquiets of our unsettling era as well. Add to that songs so strong concert versions of the show have developed an audience of their own, and the yen to see it fully, spectacularly produced again was overwhelming.
Thus, the Kennedy Center production of “Follies,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Everything is there: the compelling music, the emotionally charged book, the chance to experience show-stopper after show-stopper. This is what serious musicals in the modern era can be, but rarely are. Directed by Eric Schaeffer with an almost magical attention to detail, it allows for marvelous individual performances in the midst of a sense of ensemble, and stunning (or, in some cases stunningly poignant) visuals.
The story is set in a disintegrating theater, once home to Weismann’s Follies. Before the place is torn down, the man who produced all those shows has invited members of his many years of those shows – all those “Beautiful Girls” – to return for a reunion. Followed by the ghosts of the people they once were, a bevy of women (and a few men) relive their performances and struggle through the differences between their dreams and their lives.
Central to the piece are the duo of couples whose worlds intertwined when the two men were poor, hopeful, and hanging out backstage to meet and date their future wives. Those wives, chorus girls, dreamed of high romance, and worked to be the women the men dreamed of. A lifetime later, one sees how their futures have unraveled.
Victoria Clark plays Sally, the Arizona housewife who dashes to New York to meet, once again, the man she has come to believe she should have married. Clark balances the elements of pathos and obsessiveness in Sally without making her either too pitiful or too crazy. That, and she does justice to one of the show’s (and Sondheim’s) greatest torch songs, “Losing My Mind.” Jan Maxwell plays Phyllis, wife of a famed diplomat searching desperately for meaning in her outwardly glamorous but inwardly stultifying life. Maxwell’s Phyllis gradually unpacks a ferocious depth: her spectacularly dark and angry “Could I Leave You?” sends waves of emotion vibrating to the rafters.
Joining them, Danny Burstein makes Sally’s husband Buddy just enough of a shmo to emphasize the stagnation of her life. Then, in the dream sequence at the end, he brings down the house, singing and dancing up a storm with the “God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” Ron Raines gives the pompous Ben, Phyllis’ husband, just the right balance of aloof command and buried wistfulness. His steadiness is, in itself, an irritant until what’s underneath shines through.
Add to this remarkable single moments: Carol Neblett and Leah Horowitz as the oldest Follies Girl singing an operatic duet with the ghost of herself in her youth, Jayne Houdyshell’s delightfully unexpected “Broadway Baby,” the entire batch of women doing their best attempt at an old tap routine literally backed by their own, younger shadows. Indeed, the entire ensemble, young and old, puts everything into this production, keeping the pace moving and the general tone just light enough to make moments of drama have real punch.
Director Eric Schaeffer has created the large picture within the frame, turning what could be – and sometimes is – a series of mildly connected socko solos into a very cohesive and structured whole. Choreographer Warren Carlyle not only evokes the follies style with a seeming ease, but manages to balance the skills of some of the older performers in ways which keep the pace from slowing at important moments.
Derek McLane’s set design has transformed the Ahmanson into just the right crumbling space, and – again – his dream sequence set captures the essence of that era of theater when people went for beautiful girls on wildly colorful sets. Gregg Barnes’ costumes not only bring back the showgirl look when needed, they subtly define each character’s story in a subtle, structured way.
In short, this thing is luscious and lavish and absolutely a must-see. It is one show which must be done by masters, and this time it is getting the treatment it deserves. Bleak though its tone, it is a musical with something worth hearing interesting characters say, or sing. And if, at the end, problems aren’t solved, they are at least defined, and defined with music which has entered the American songbook, helping to give voice to a generation’s dis-ease. Indeed, subsequent generations have found what was originally said in (can it be) 1971 still rings with the same power, as change continues to outpace our dreams.
What: “Follies” When: Through June 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $150 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org