Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Kennedy Center's FOLLIES: Haunting and Haunted

Eliot Elisofson's photo of Gloria Swanson in the wreckage of the Roxy Theatre.  In the
mid-1960s, this image was an inspiration for James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's FOLLIES.
(reflections on the musical FOLLIES at Kennedy Center June 4.  Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, originally directed in 1971 by Harold Prince, co-directed by Michael Bennett.)

FOLLIES is a ghost story.  I found the Kennedy Center's production to be haunted by images of earlier productions.

To be fair, a show about aging performers of the Thirties and Forties confronting death and lost ideals may never again be quite so poignant as it was in 1971, when it starred aging performers of the Thirties and Forties. My three companions, who had no such preconceptions, laughed, shuddered, and teared up at all the right moments. 

The audience enters KC’s Eisenhower Theatre to find the walls and proscenium shrouded with loose-hanging safety curtains.  The jagged wreck of the stage’s apron overhangs the orchestra pit.   We are in the fictional “Weissman Theatre,” once glamorous and soon to be demolished for a parking lot. 

Doom-filled chords begin the “Prologue” and the shroud lifts to reveal a statuesque chorine in glittery gray.  As the music hushes to an eerie waltz (one of Sondheim’s most evocative pieces), more ghostly chorines appear and join in a delicate ballet.

The ghosts never leave the stage, even during intermission, and aged characters are shadowed by ghosts of their youthful selves. These ghosts re-enact songs and scenes of the past, and play important roles in the drama of two couples who come to a “first and last reunion” at the theatre.

The story is simple: Sally married Buddy, and Phyllis married Ben, but now Sally has come to the reunion to recapture “the time [she] was happy” by recapturing Ben. In this crisis, each character has to confront the realization that, at mid-life, their lives have been “time wasted, merely passing through.”

Reviews of the original 1971 Broadway production often disparaged James Goldman’s book and the “book” songs in Sondheim’s score, saving the most positive comments for Sondheim’s “pastiche” songs, those written in the style of earlier Broadway composers. Viewing this production, my companions and I had the reverse reaction.

James Goldman’s script gives us a dozen characters’ back stories in brief bits of dialogue, peppered with zingers.   Scene by scene, Sally reveals the depth of her delusions.     Ben’s veneer of accomplishment wears away until he reveals that he feels like a phony, and so he has never experienced love (as opposed to affairs and flings).   Only the reconciliations at the end seemed too quick, too neat; two of my friends came to Goldman’s defense, feeling that the characters were returning home with their eyes opened: not a happy ending, but a chastened beginning of the rest of their lives.

In Sondheim’s “book” songs, the characters reveal what they think – or like to think – of themselves.   “The road you didn’t take never comes to mind, does it?” asks Ben.   “In Buddy’s eyes, I’m young, I’m beautiful,” sings Sally.  “It was always real, and I’ve always loved you this much,” promises Ben to Sally.  Buddy sings about how good life is “when you’ve got the right girl,” but then can’t finish the refrain, “And I’ve got….” After kicking chairs in frustration, performer Danny Burstein ended the song in tears.

By the time Phyllis sings to Ben, “Could I leave you? Yes!” the drama has reached an impasse.   A curtain falls, the characters and their ghosts intermingle, all yelling recriminations at each other, and suddenly, that curtain is ripped down to reveal arches of giant red-pink roses spanning the stage. 

This production’s principals, choreographer and dancers really nailed those “Follies” numbers that bring the show to a climax.  The chorus sang “Loveland” while the two couples wandered, dazed, about the stage.  The young couples sang clearly, charmingly, in the double-duet “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow / Love Will See Us Through.”  Bernadette Peters sang “Losing My Mind” with quiet intensity, not moving from her spot stage center;  Ron Raines as “Ben” sang and danced “Live, Laugh, Love” with requisite confidence – before the dance falls apart.  Standouts of the evening were Danny Burstein in “Buddy’s Blues,” whose clarity, enthusiasm, and inspired athletic antics with two girl dancers made me laugh at this number as if it were new to me.  Jan Maxwell, as the femme fatale surrounded by fawning, leaping boys, made “Lucy and Jessie” the showstopper of the evening.

Between episodes in the slow-motion collision of the two couples, FOLLIES gives us old girls singing and dancing their old songs, always shadowed by their younger selves.   These numbers were high-points of the original production; here, they came close to dispelling all the ghostly atmosphere and dramatic tension that director Eric Schaeffer and his cast had been at pains to create.

A few times, the numbers worked as the creators intended.   A delightful pair of elderly performers, “The Whitmans” (played by Susan Watson and Terrence Currier)  sang a cute “specialty” tap song – “Listen to the rain on the roof go pit-pitty-pat” -- as if happy to be remembering their days of modest success.  Upstage, their youthful “ghosts” performed the dance with grace that the older pair no longer could match. 

“One More Kiss” reaches its musical climax on the phrase, “All things beautiful must die,” and the truth of that line is proven in the music, the image, and even in the casting. In the role of "Heidi Schiller," soprano Rosalind Elias, her voice strong but husky, takes the low note in harmony while Young Heidi's more supple and clear voice reaches much higher.   Throughout her number, even as she sang the words, “Never look back,” Miss Elias as "Heidi" was looking back with longing at her younger self.  At the end of the song, during the applause, she seemed to be lost in a painful memory, and she wandered off stage, looking a bit lost.  (In the Broadway revival of 2001, a young man touched the elderly soprano on the arm, and tugged her gently towards the exit, while she peered back plaintively into the darkness of the house – the most memorable moment of that production.)

The “mirror song” (“Who’s That Woman?”) brings a chorus line of flabby, stiff or haggard women into step with their younger selves.  One of my friends teared up to see this;  I was struck by the image of spry “Mrs. Whitman” stumbling mid-spin, disoriented, while her younger self twirled behind her.

But other stars of the show punched holes right through the fourth wall, as if they were trying to impress the audience at a benefit concert.  Regine, unsteady on her feet, anchored herself to a spot stage left and delivered "Ah, Paris!" sans enthusiasm (or consonants), and then paused to receive her expected allotment of applause.  Linda Lavin, swathed in a tight, shiny gold dress, belted "Broadway Baby" and even raised the pitch an octave for a grand smash.  But the song loses a lot of its interest if the aged singer who swears to "stick it till I'm on a bill all over Times Square" appears to be a confident, healthy, glamorous star.  The woman for whom it was written, Ethel Shutte, had lived those lines.  At seventy-five, she had once been a performer of the real Ziegfeld follies, a has – been, or a never-quite-was.  To see that old lady up there in her matronly skirt, finally getting her (last) chance to be in a "great, big, Broadway show" was wonderful, funny, and heart-breaking at the same time. 

Diva Elaine Paige's version of “I’m Still Here” likewise suffered in comparison to earlier versions.   In the original, Yvonne De Carlo had lived much of what she was singing about, no one more the “sloe eyed vamp” than she in her 1950s film roles, and no role more “camp” than “Lily Munster” in the then-recent TV sitcom. In the 2001 production, Polly Bergen and her director got it just right:  For the first half of the song, the character was regaling laughing guests at the party.  She left them laughing with, “I got through Shirley Temple, and I’m here,” and retreated to a spotlight downstage left, close to the audience. There, she sang to us the more rueful verses that begin, “I’ve been through Reno, I’ve been through Beverly Hills….”  Paige didn’t seem to get that concept. Worse, to achieve the illusion of spontaneity, she stretched the end phrase every time, an annoying affectation.  The introspective part was just a generalized belt-fest, not an expression of character.

Perhaps no production of FOLLIES can be what that first one was. This one probably came as close as possible.

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