I shamefacedly admit that, like some colleagues, I did not in 1971 recognize the greatness of Follies. I now see that Follies is the kind of show irresistible to anyone who has lived long enough to fathom the meaning of aging, lost youth, mortality, and the magnificent though Pyrrhic victory of not going gentle into that good night. The show potently accumulates meaning from all our losses, from all our gallant last-ditch stands. Never mind Flo Ziegfeld, and mourn for two incomparable stars whose luster the show now subsumes: Alexis Smith and Lee Remick. Were there ever two more maturely beautiful women on our stages, more ladylike and sexy, more aglitter yet accessible, more totally theatrical and not the least bit stagy? Where are you now, Alexis and Lee, you two marvelous Phyllises of the 1971 premiere and the 1985 concert revival? You are built into the accruing glory that is Follies, as surely as Daphne lives in the olive tree, as Andromeda lights up the sky.
Do not for a moment think the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, New Jersey, peddles some nice but provincial, reflected-glory production for memory-chewing old-timers but small beer for newcomers. This staging has Broadway luminously written all over it, and the sooner it gets there, the better.
You remember the story, don’t you? An old Ziegfeldish producer, Dimitri Weismann, throws a farewell party to past glory in the ruins of his old theater, now being torn down to become a parking lot. Entertainers and showgirls of his famed extravaganzas, along with the men they loved and/or married, show up for a final fling, and old loves re-blossom among the ruins, wrecked spouses try to rebuild crumbling marriages or start new ones. The past and the present briefly co-exist in a striking double exposure: We see the two principal couples, Phyllis and Ben, Sally and Buddy, as well as various individuals as they were then and as they are now. The stage is aswirl with intermingling ghosts: those whose ghostly presence haunts the present, and those whose ghastly present bemoans and grasps at happiness past.
If there was a flaw in the original, Hal Prince production, it was that James Goldman’s brilliantly conceived book allowed too much dialogue to slow down the vibrant life in Stephen Sondheim’s score and Michael Bennett’s choreography. The Millburn revival prunes verbiage to a muscular terseness, and gives full vent to eloquent dancing and a score of twenty hit numbers, outsparkling one another; but not really outsparkling – sharing their radiance, rather, like the Milky Way.
Much depends on the right cast, and here we have seven great luminaries of yore: Kaye Ballard, Eddie Bracken, Donna McKechnie, Ann Miller, Liliane Montevecchi (less solipsistic than usual), Phyllis Newman, and Donald Saddler. They act, sing, and dance with untarnishable bravura and mastery that should speak equally loud to established fans and astounded new audiences.
But the newer or new performers mostly hold their own. It would be hard to find fault with Jo Ann Cunningham, Michael Gruber, Vahan Khanzadian, Natalie Mosco, Carol Skarimbas, and several others. Especially impressive is the Phyllis of Dee Hoty, who ably wears the mantle of Alexis Smith and Lee Remick, than which there is no higher praise. For the London revival, Phyllis’s terrific number, ìThe Story of Lucy and Jessie,î was dropped for Diana Rigg, who couldn’t dance it, and replaced by Ah, but Underneath,î nice but overshadowed by earlier striptease numbers in Pal Joey and Gypsy. For the elegant Miss Hoty, the original should be restored.
Two further problems are the actors playing Ben and Buddy, the former collegiate stage-door Johnnies who married Phyllis and Sally, respectively. Ben, a writer, was initially Sally’s lover, and Buddy, a super-salesman, must now watch Ben and Sally gravitate toward each other again. The sophisticated Ben should be played by the current Buddy, Tony Roberts, whose lack of dancing skills makes him less fit for a part calling for a hoofer like Dick Van Dyke. And that fine singer Laurence Guittard does not fully convey the rivenness of Ben. So their deeply human opposites, Donna McKechnie and Dee Hoty, are not matched.
Michael Anania has designed very good sets, though they do not quite equal the evocative eeriness of Boris Aronson’s originals. Gregg Barnes’s costumes are suitably grand, Mark Stanley’s lighting incandesces, and Jerry Mitchell comes as close to Michael Bennett as any rethinking choreographer can come to what was perfection. Robert Johanson’s staging keeps it all beautifully astir, and Jim Coleman and Tom Helm take ample care of the musical end. Which brings us back to Sondheim, whose supreme masterpiece this is – a kind of King Lear of musical comedy. In a just and wiser world, it is not Les Miz, Phantom, and Cats that would be forever; instead, there would be one sold-out theater playing Follies always. Always.