Dirge for a dying theatre

Some of those that were stunned about my thoughts on Sondheim & Goldman’s Follies persist in the presumption that I just haven’t seen a good production.  The original staging, a co-creation of Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, is legendary.  Missed that one.  But I’ve seen five others – I doubt there’s any other show I can say I’ve seen five different mountings of.  But the grain of truth here is that the one I just saw, that just closed on Broadway, didn’t make a good case for the show.  So here I’ll discuss some of the confusing and un-Follies-like aspects of the recent revival.

But I’ll start with positives: Jan Maxwell is fairly fascinating as Phyllis.  For most of the show, you wish she was given something to do other than to bitch about her enviable(-to-anyone-else) existence.  When her big number finally comes, it’s a high point, for she’s sexy and in command, celebratory rather than castigating.  Danny Burstein is likable as Buddy, standing out since this is a show in which so few people get to be likable.  Casting these veterans enlivens the evening – not enough to save it, but enough to edge it above “poor” and a bit towards “fair.”  I also liked Jayne Houdyshell’s lumpen take on Broadway Baby: that she isn’t remotely like most of the other personages at this party only makes her more welcome.

Chief among this Follies’ cornucopia of imperfections is the silly Sally of Bernadette Peters.  If a pitch-perfect performance is one in which every note is right, this is a tone-deaf one, the rare true moments seeming like accidents.  From the moment she enters, she fairly reels with desperation.  It’s as if the only fuel she runs on is self-pity.  These qualities are so unattractive, that it makes no sense at all that Ben even gives her a look.  On the other hand, Peters possesses surface attractiveness, so we can surmise that Ben might feel a little lust for her.  As played by soap star Ron Raines, though, Ben is wooden.  Many of his line-readings lack meaning.  One can discern no real emotions so the longing contained in an oddly-structured duet called Too Many Mornings is like an ill-fitting suit of clothes on him.

Speaking of ill-fitting, there are multiple lines in which Saliy refers to how fat she is.  Bernadette Peters is a wisp of a thing, but the irony is lost.  We don’t take these references as indicative of Sally’s self-delusion; Raines has no reaction: could he possibly agree that this 100-pound woman is fat?  Elsewhere on the stage, there are older women who are actually overweight, so ignoring Sally’s unreal self-deprecation seems the worst way to go.  The area where we’re really through the looking glass, here, is the world’s assumption that Bernadette Peters is a good singer.  Have you ever plugged an external speaker into a radio that was already on?  As the plug goes in, the ear hears an array of sound qualities: the not-so-good speaker that comes with the radio, the higher fidelity of the one you’re plugging in, and sometimes there’s an in-between sound that’s neither sound, nor pleasant.  Well, that’s the current Peters sound on pretty numbers like In Buddy’s Eyes.  (I’ll cheerfully admit I’m spoiled by Barbara Cook’s renditions on the album, Follies In Concert.) 

Cook, 1985

By the time we get to her unfortunately literal Losing My Mind, the star is doubling over with sobs she’s shedding for herself, making it extraordinarily difficult to feel for her.  And then she indulges in singing her final note a full octave higher than the score.

I wonder if tastes have changed since Follies’ 1971 debut.  Used to be, you’d never see self-pity on stage; characters would bravely fight against it, which would be the effective way to perform Losing My Mind. It’s supposed to work like a classic dry-eyed torch song, at least on some level.  The main development of the intervening years was the ascendency of the Eurotrash musical, in which pitying oneself is not only okay, it’s applauded.  As it happens, the second biggest star in this muddle is the original leading lady from three of the top British poperettas, Evita, Cats, and Chess.  Elaine Paige has lived through all that, but not Reno, nor Beverly Hills.  She plays Carlotta as if she were Debbie Reynolds, still-alluring in middle age, all brass and smiles.  But this means her number, I’m Still Here seems inappropriately over-positive.  Good times, she’s lived; bum times, she’s paying lip service to.  When you hear a good rendition of this pop culture laundry list, you feel in the presence of someone who’s truly experienced the downside as well as the up.  Paige, freed of the Eurotrash insistence on giving voice to depression, hits the other extreme, and the song loses its emotional weight.

Which reminds me to question: How did “the mirror song” lose its mirrors?  In Who’s That Woman? ladies seem not to be confronting their younger selves, but merely competing against them in a challenge dance that ends in a tie.  And it’s not the only time the choreography distracts from Sondheim’s ambitions for a song: The Story of Lucy and Jessie has Maxwell dance away from the chorus boys, as if she doesn’t know they’re there.  Speaking of being unaware someone’s there, in the theatre, we’re supposed to ignore the presence of the conductor.  In Follies’ final number, the character of Ben forgets his lyrics, which, ideally, should stop hearts in the audience: has the actor forgotten?  The conductor feeds him his next lyric, shattering the illusion he’s invisible.  And then, as written, there’s a moment where the chorus perks up and continues the song, in ironic cheerful counterpoint to Ben’s breakdown.  That moment is supposed to be punctuated by two rim-shots, or a loud baton on the conductor’s podium, coming like gunshots, waking everyone up: it’s a stunning coup de theatre in the midst of an otherwise sub-par song.  In this revival, however, the rim-shot sounds don’t blast through; Ron Raines is in the middle of a line and continues; it’s merely more mess on top of a mess.

Which, in a nutshell, is this particular production.  So much gets missed.  I complained in my last post that, in Follies’ writing, there’s not enough there there.  This season’s restaging didn’t make the most of the moments that are.

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One Response to Dirge for a dying theatre

  1. Jon88 says:

    We are very much agreed about Maxwell, Burstein and Houdyshell. I’d also add Mary Beth Peil to the list; I knew very little of her work beyond “The Good Wife,” and I found her a surprising delight. We are also agreed about Peters (cast, presumably, as an audience draw), Raines and Paige. The latter two distracted me most with their back-phrasing; the show closed ten days ago, but they might not yet be finished with their songs.

    Probably thanks to the Peters imbalance, the focus of the story shifted from Ben and Phyllis being primary to Buddy and Sally being so. I found this disturbing, but then, I’m one of those snobs who saw the original. Giving Peters the final bow? Sigh.

    I was seated upstairs, and wished the orchestra hadn’t sounded so muted. I am embarrassingly quick to tears when in the theater, but the current production left me dry-eyed.

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