Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre Review: Follies

On Broadway, Sondheim’s problem play gets a problem production

Bernadette Peters Loses Her Mind

Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies, with all  its maudlin tendencies, should be both devastating and spectacular, brimming with regret and nostalgia for the glory days between the World Wars. Eric Schaffer’s production, which transferred to Broadway from the Kennedy Center, most unfortunately is neither. Rather, it’s underwhelming and underproduced, with stilted direction, miscast stars and shockingly little glitz and glamor.

When former members of the Weismann Follies reunite on the eve of their theatre’s destruction to reminisce and glamorize the old days, two jaded middle-aged couples come face-to-face with all that might have been in what should be a shattering experience. Under Eric Shaeffer’s dull direction, the cast is as lifeless as the spectral Follies girls that float in and out of scenes (to the point of distraction): a lackluster Bernadette Peters (not in best voice), attempts dowdy uncertainty as Sally, but underplays, begetting a not-delusional-enough delusional. Consequently, her big 11 o’clock number, “Losing My Mind,” lacks the devastating heartbreak and power vocals that it demands of an obsessive woman just beginning to realize her sad reality. As the more pulled-together Phyllis, Jan Maxwell (the saving comic  grace of the recent revival of Lend Me a Tenor) infuses her character with energy and desire, and though not a strong singer, she acts the hell out of “Could I Leave You?”, fiercely lashing through the pain of an empty marriage. But she can’t act hard enough to distract from the fact that her dance skills are beginner at best, and in her tongue-twisting number, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” she’s increasingly awkward, surrounded by boys who embarrassingly out-dance her and stuck under a follow spot that mercilessly highlights each imprecise, ungraceful movement (it doesn’t help that Warren Carlyle’s choreography lacks the dazzle it desperately needs). As for the men, soap star Ron Raines’ Ben is despondent, but not commanding, and Danny Burstein’s Buddy finally — and most delightfully — grabs our attention mid-second act as a manic clown in the vaudevillian “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.”

The other Follies — who are played by the likes of Elaine Paige and Mary Beth Peil– are most underserved by Schaffer and Carlyle, and do little more than walk back and forth across the stage, facing front to sing out when it’s time for their individual numbers; given so little, they unenthusiastically offer not much more. It’s only when the main couple’s younger selves appear that the production springs to life. Played by Lora Lee Gayer  and Christian Delcroix (Young Sally and Buddy) and Kirsten Scott and Nick Verina (Young Phyllis and Ben), “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” is by far the most effective and affecting number in the show. Sprightly and joyful, this foursome pulls focus from its starrier castmates — not because they are young and optimistic, but because they are offered Carlyle’s best choreography (which is clever and charming here) and because they engage the material and imbue it with high energy.

If only the rest of the production were so engaging. But from Kai Harada’s cheesily ghostly sound design (entering the Marquis was like walking into a bad haunted house), to Derek McLane‘s skeletal set of worn drop cloths draping the theatre’s “walls” to the “Loveland” layers of tulled roses, to Natasha Katz’s lighting scheme of dark, darker and darkest (all but completely hiding Gregg Barnes’s gloriously bedazzled costumes), this revival sadly disappoints on nearly every level. Sondheim and Goldman’s lush, pastiche-rich work, deserves better — it deserves a little more glamor and a lot more care.

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2011 by in Broadway, Musical, Reviews, Theatre Reviews.

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