I had never seen Follies before (I went to two previews and have held back my review until the opening). I must have absorbed many of the songs over the years just from Sondheim medleys but without the context of who was singing and why.
When I heard about the Kennedy Center transfer I was excited. I loved Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music and she was the main draw for me. I loved Jayne Houdyshell in Well and was pleased she was also in this production. I had never seen Teri White, Jan Maxwell or Elaine Paige before so it seemed like a good chance to see some great performers all in one show.
As a quick plot summary, basically this is a 1971 reunion of former Follies girls and their spouses hosted in the soon to be torn down theater where they all had performed. The focus is on two couples who have not seen each other in 30 years but the action is often broken up with numbers by past Follies girls. When the older people reminisce their younger selves appear (sometimes speaking, singing or dancing).
I'm going to say this--I love dark material and this show in many ways is right up my alley. One of the greatest strengths of the underlying work is that it dives deep into true emotional nostalgia and that nostalgia is not just limited to a showgirl's past but into universal questions about paths taken and paths not-taken. I love this stuff. Wallowing in what might have been, what was.
Follies explores that age old question "What if?" and shows you that asking the question and answering it will provide two very different emotional experiences. Asking "What if" gives you the space to explore the fantasy, the romance, the lies you tell yourself. Answering "What if" with reality, truth and the compromises that life/adulthood/maturity sadly deliver.
I loved Act I. The set-up of who each character was, their youthful hopes and ambitions and the realities of how their lives have played out. There are famous songs such as Broadway Baby and I'm Still Here that are delivered with aplomb (although Elaine Paige royally lost her way one night in I'm Still Here). There is a fantastic show-stopping dance routine led by Teri White. But when Ron Raines started to sing Too Many Mornings I burst out into tears. I'm no drama queen and not a theater-crier by nature. The lyrics, the music, his voice, the sadness, the longing, the loss. Fucking hell. I just lost it. The song becomes a duet and Bernadette Peters joins in. The first preview I saw, Bernadette's voice was just not there and it was devastating. The second time I saw it (also in previews) she hit the notes and it was more satisfying.
I've reviewed other clips of that song on You Tube (possibly obsessively) and it is too bad BP couldn't bring it. If you listen or watch any clips on You Tube you can see some stronger voices bring a lot more to the song that she does. Please watch Julian Ovenden sing it. And then laugh at the creepy weird "acting" at the end of this clip.
The curtain drops on Act I in an awkward place and yet I was wholly satisfied by Act I. Act II lost me a bit. I know they tried out eliminating the intermission at one of the previews and I understand why you might do that. The split between Act I and Act II can be very jarring.
Act II is largely set in a world called Loveland. I get what the Loveland sequence of Act II is there to accomplish but I liked it less. It is supposed to be a surreal, dream sequence of sorts performed as old Follies numbers. I get it, intellectually. The characters are working through some issues in their minds and they are expressed as song and dance numbers. But visually it is the brighter, shinier part of this production But I did not like the visual style and garish palette used. Again I understand the choice for bright colors and Follies-esque numbers, but I thought the shrill pink used, and the cheapish looking flower wall was a little nauseating and dizzying. There is one point where the lights flash with different colors and both times I saw it I thought, "Ok, I don't have epilepsy, but here is where I have an epileptic fit."
I wish they had made Act II look more like a proper 1940's Follies show. The hairstyles and some costumes are...but the set is just strange and awful. There I said it. I hate that damn pink puffy set. Maybe because I liked the set in Act I so much--the bones and skeleton of an old theater haunted by ghosts of Follies girls in gray, black and sparkles. I understand the idea of contrast...but it was just seizure inducing for me.
The only song I really like in the Loveland sequence is Losing My Mind. I appreciate the comic timing, voices and choices made on "God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me." And the staging of "Lucy and Jessie" and "Live, Laugh Love" are fine. I just love Act I so much Act II pales in comparison for me. And I think it is somewhat about the underlying material and a lot about the choices they have made here in this production.
For the most part I like the cast in this show. One misstep for me, and only me, is Danny Burstein. I saw South Pacific with Danny Burstein in it and for some reason I could not shake that image with him in this show. And I'll tell you it is distracting to imagine a little sailor hat on anyone in this show. It's clearly a mental misfire going on in only my head but I had trouble shaking it. I don't know why he didn't work for me in the role of Buddy. He should have. He's got a great voice, he looks properly "schluby" but maybe he's also too sweet. But he's supposed to be kinda sweet. It could have been how the role is written. He's a man of two hearts and that duality is hard to pull off. I just didn't feel for him. He's cheating on his wife but he loves his wife. For some reason I never felt he did love her.
I really don't like the staging of his big number "The Right Girl." He's angry and the dance is somewhat comical. Something about it was off for me. I know others love it and think he can do no wrong. And it wasn't bad by any means...there was just something that didn't gel for me. I may see it a few more times and maybe it will become more clear what isn't working for me. And I may be alone in this opinion. The more I think about it the more I think it is the character I don't connect to and maybe not the performer.
I was completely enraptured in the dynamic between Phyllis, Sally and Ben. I sadly understand the relationships that form when you are younger, that as you grow older, grow apart. I also have come to know many couples who stay together well beyond the point to which they have much of a relationship anymore. I am also painfully aware of the "rock star" syndrome as I call it. The person who you were so in love with at a time in your life that you have put them and that relationship on a pedestal. You have erased all that was wrong with the relationship and turned them into this "rock star" in your mind...so that one look at them again, one glimpse of where they are now turns you into the gushing child you were then a la Sally. I have been to enough high school reunions to know that I won't go to any more. And google-stalking those people is also bad news. I'm here to tell you. But that's a blog-post for another day...
And I get the shenanigans Phyllis and Ben engage in to feel again. Jan Maxwell is sharp-edged and bitter in all the right places. I love her acerbic line delivery throughout. I don't particularly like that they've dressed her in a champagne colored dress. She gets very washed out. But her performance is terrific. Her "Could I Leave You" is spot on.
I happen to love Ron Raines in this role. It may just be I want to be wrapped in his voice like a warm winter coat...and that's all he has to do is open his mouth and I am there....Others I think find him a bit wooden. For me, he sings and I melt. And I wonder where he's been all my life.
Bernadette Peters comes across as a dreamy child living in a fantasy--living for a fantasy. And maybe she's actually a little crazy. It's an interesting choice and I imagine others would play the role very differently. I liked it but I have a warm spot in my heart for her. Others might find it grating.
The younger versions of Ben, Sally, Phyllis and Buddy are all well cast to provide the echos of the past and the voices of these characters in their youth. They are specific enough for each situation, but let's face it they are ghosts and are played as ghosts so they are not as rich and satisfying as their present day counterparts. But they play the shadows of those characters very well.
There is a lot to love in this production if you are willing to go to some shadowy emotional places with the characters. It's not a light and frivolous night at the theater. But it was satisfying and enriching to me--someone who is happy to spend a few hours in the dark.