Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2005
I just loved the Barrington Stage Company production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies which is flawlessly cast and energetically performed. But then I am a real geek when it comes to Broadway musicals and a big fan of Stephen Sondheim. For me it is a thrill to see this unwieldy and problematic show given a professional production here in the Berkshires. If you have never seen a Sondheim show, you should be warned that, while Follies contains some of Sondheim’s very best music, it is far from being his very best show.
After reading about a reunion of Zeigfeld showgirls, Sondheim and librettist James Goldman (author of The Lion in Winter) came up with an idea for a murder mystery musical centering on two former showgirls and their husbands attending such a reunion. This idea, titled The Girls Upstairs, got shelved while other projects occupied the men, during which time Sondheim began his lengthy collaboration with producer/director Hal Prince. Prince, inspired by this photograph of Gloria Swanson standing among the ruins of the soon-to-be-demolished Roxy Theatre (see below), dispensed with the murder mystery and turned the show into a lament on the themes of aging and loss. Goldman never wrote a satisfactory book for this version of the show, and by the time Follies opened on Broadway in April of 1971 it was an ungainly combination of a showgirls’ reunion and the tale of the disintegration of the marriages of the two main couples. The Follies of the early decades of the 20th century didn’t have a plot or through story, but Sondheim and Goldman’s folly does.
In its original incarnation Follies was so physically enormous and costly that it would have had to run at nearly 70% capacity each week just to break even, which it failed to do. The New York theatre critics were bitterly divided on whether the show was a masterpiece or a flop, and after 522 performances it closed, losing $650,000 of the $800,000 its backers had invested. The deal Prince struck with Capitol Records gave them the right to decide how much (if any) of the show’s score would be recorded, and in the end a single rather than a double LP cast album was released and no complete version of the 1971 staging has ever been recorded. (A recording of the 1987 London production billed as “complete” contains numbers not used on Broadway in 1971 and omits others that were used then.) Follies entered Broadway cult history, billed as either a monumental folly on the part of its creative team or a tragic tale of a brilliant show that never received the recognition it was due.
Follies remains a terrifying show to stage. You need a large and talented cast, and, conventional wisdom has always taught, a large and technically complex theatre. Heading for opening night in Sheffield I had no doubts that Barrington Stage could assemble the right cast, but could they really stage Follies in a high school auditorium?
The answer is a resounding yes. Barrington Stage Artistic Director Julianne Boyd, who is also the director of this production, has put the emphasis on talent rather than technical wizardry. The set, designed by Michael Anania, fills the Consolati Performing Arts Center at Mt. Everett Regional High School, but does not overwhelm or over tax it. It is deceptively complex and can be transformed rapidly. But the primary visual spectacle, and this is a spectacular show, is achieved through the thoroughly theatrical lighting design of Scott Pinkney and D. Benjamin Courtney, the costume designs of Alejo Vietti which flatter a variety of sizes and shapes of performers, the inventive choreography of Lara Teeter (who also appears in the leading role of Buddy Plummer), and the raw talent of a dream cast ranging in age, I would guess, from their early 20’s to their mid-80’s. Every single one of them is perfect for their role(s) and devastatingly talented. Hearing them belt out some of Stephen Sondheim’s most memorable music is more than a treat, it’s a privilege.
With all that going on, this show could take place on a bare stage and no one would care.
As to the plot of Follies…well, you know the old saying about the weather in the Berkshires? “If you don’t like what you’ve got now just wait five minutes and it will change.” That pretty much sums up what happens in this show. One minute you are listing to a super-talent like Donna McKechnie as Carlotta Campion or Marni Nixon as Heidi Schiller (a role she played in the short-lived 2001 Broadway revival of Follies) deliver a pastiche number about the glories of their past with the Weismann Follies, and the next you are listening to some combination of Sally Durant Plummer (Kim Crosby), Buddy Plummer (Teeter), Ben Stone (Jeff McCarthy), and Phyllis Rogers Tone (Leslie Denniston) and/or the ghosts of their younger selves, played by Elsie Molinelli (“Young Sally”), John Patrick (“Young Buddy”), Eric Ulloa (“Young Ben”) and Nili Bassman (“Young Phyllis”), bicker and plead. It’s all WAY too complicated.
Digging out my dictionary:
n. pl. fol-lies
[Middle English folie, from Old French, from fol, foolish, from Late Latin follis, windbag, fool. See fool.]
1. A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight.
2. A costly undertaking having an absurd or ruinous outcome.
3. follies (used with a sing. or pl. verb) An elaborate theatrical revue consisting of music, dance, and skits.
Most of the first act is devoted to definition #3 – numbers sung by the former Weismann girls – and most of the second act is taken up by definition #1 – Buddy’s folly, Sally’s folly, Phyllis’s folly, and Ben’s folly. From what I told you earlier it is easy to apply definition #2 to the original Broadway production. The end result is a show that is overly long and wildly schizophrenic, but who among us could decide which of those wonderful songs should be cut?
I searched and searched for the right word to describe the eight women who play the former Weismann girls, and I decided to call them “vintage” performers. Plunging in to my dictionary again I discover that “Vintage” can mean “Characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal; classic.” Well, if that doesn’t describe these women I don’t know what does. In addition to Crosby (the baby of the group at 45), Denniston, McKechnie, and Nixon, Diane J. Findlay appears as Stella Deems, Diane Houghton as Hattie Walker, Joy Franz as Solange La Fitte, and Natalie Mosco as Emily Whitman (a role she played in the 1998 revival at Paper Mill Playhouse). I could go on for paragraphs extolling the joys of each one’s performance. In the interests of saving space and sanity suffice it to say that each is outstanding and each has a wonderful Sondheim song (or two or three) to sing.
The talented men involved are reduced to mere window dressing as this is definitely Ladies’ Night. Marvin Eihorn plays Stella’s husband, Sam Deems, and David Young plays Emily’s husband and dance partner Theodore Whitman. Gordon Stanley appears as Follies founder Dimitri “Roscoe” Weismann.
The cast is rounded out by six talented young men and women – Michelle Dyer, Jason Johnson, Carissa Lopez, Rose O’Hara, Steve Parmenter, and Bettina Tyler-Lewis – who serve as dancers and chorus members, and assume key smaller roles in the show. Dyer gets to demonstrate her lovely singing voice in duet with Nixon as “Young Heidi” in One More Kiss; and O’Hara and Tyler-Lewis get to strut their stuff along with Teeter in Buddy’s Folly The God-Why Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues. Johnson and Parmenter get the enviable task of partnering Denniston through her striptease number in Phyllis’s folly Ah, But Underneath (a number written not for the 1971 Broadway version but for the 1987 London production of Follies, replacing The Story of Lucy and Jessie).
Staging Follies in a high school auditorium, albeit a very nice one, is incredibly daring. It is that kind of risk taking, along with a clever eye for just the right property, that has enabled Boyd to guide Barrington Stage, a mere babe on the Berkshire theatre scene at the start of its 11th season, to where it stands today as one of the best theatres in the region. Follies is a watershed production for BSC and for this region. Unless you really hate Sondheim, this is the must-see show of the season.
The Barrington Stage Company production of Follies runs through July 16 at the Consolati Performing Arts Center in Mt. Everett Regional High School on Berkshire School Road in Sheffield, MA. The show runs two hours and thirty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for teens and adults. Call the box office 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005