Follies Go Litely

When Stephen Sondheim’s Follies arrived in 1971, we critics were pretty obtuse about it. It now emerges as one of our finest musicals and should be on the top-ten list of even those people who, like me, don’t believe in list-making.

That original production had the benefit of Harold Prince and Michael Bennett’s co-direction and the latter’s choreography, of Florence Klotz’s eye-popping costumes, and Boris Aronson’s magnificent ruin of a set. And, of course, 22 Sondheim songs, each worthy of a musical-comedy hall of fame, if such a thing existed. They stand up even in the crippled current revival of the Roundabout production.

You may have seen the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of 1998, which was appreciably better but because of some ugly behind-the-scenes politics did not make it to Broadway. That need not stop you from seeing this one; Follies has enough life to survive even in a half-alive revival.

The first problem with this mounting is its lack of opulence. Yes, costs have skyrocketed, but the Paper Mill surmounted that hurdle. A show about a fabulous party given by a Ziegfeld-like producer in his about-to-be-demolished theater, reuniting surviving cast members from all his shows one last time – not to mention the ghosts of showgirls past and the incarnate memories of some of these performers’ younger selves – has to be lavish. And beyond the glitter of opulence, it must also glow with the burnish of remembrance, light up with the luster of nostalgia. Mark Thompson’s décor is serviceable, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting better than that, and the veteran Theoni V. Aldredge’s costuming honorable. Still, lacking is some of the glory that was greasepaint, some of the grandeur that was roaming down memory lane.

The cast has its sparklers. The part of the sophisticated Phyllis, twice indelibly incarnated in the beauty and talent of Alexis Smith and Lee Remick, has a condign incumbent in Blythe Danner; if her voice has its limitations, her acting and loveliness have none. No less impressive are Polly Bergen, as the ultimate survivor, Carlotta, whose anthem to durability, “I’m Still Here,” ranks with the best; and Joan Roberts, the original Laurey from Oklahoma!, as an endearingly enduring Heidi. There are winning contributions by other beloved old-timers: Betty Garrett, Donald Saddler, Marge Champion, and Louis Zorich.

But Matthew Warchus has never directed musicals, and it shows: He does not trust the power of a great song delivered with absolute simplicity. As a director of plays, he believes that everything needs to be acted. So he casts the fine actress Judith Ivey as Sally and obliges her to act out redundantly “Losing My Mind” with distracting superimposed histrionics. He has similarly undercut Miss Danner’s “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” with supererogatory gestures. And because Treat Williams is not a dancer, he has made him instead run around kicking over chairs during “The Right Girl,” undermining his singing and distorting his characterization.

He has also made some poor casting choices. That Gregory Harrison played a similar part badly in Steel Pier is no reason to let him louse up Ben with his charmlessness. To cast Lauren Ward as anything but an ugly duckling is a mistake; to cast her as Young Sally, a catastrophe. Even the tiny role of Kevin could profit from someone more appealing than Stephen Campanella.

But Warchus’s chief failings are not knowing where to place singers for optimum efficacy and not even exploiting the full potential of the scenery. And allowing the mediocre Kathleen Marshall to come up with even less than her customary choreography.

For all that, it would be folly to pass up the indestructible Follies. From every one of its splendidly orchestrated songs (by Jonathan Tunick), Stephen Sondheim proclaims “I’m Still Here,” while James Goldman’s far from flawless book nevertheless captures the ability of theater to make us – with art or artifice, truth or trickery – however briefly, partakers of immortality.

Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets is one of those gimmicky plays in which two actors play fifteen parts. It concerns an American company’s filming a probably awful superproduction in a tiny Irish town. The principal characters are two youngish layabouts, Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, making easy but ephemeral money as extras. The leading lady, Caroline Giovanni, is a third-generation-Irish Hollywood star trying to improve her Irish accent by fraternizing with Jake; Charlie is trying to peddle his wretched screenplay to the film folk. A young, unstable lad, not hired as an extra, commits suicide. The extras, who include nearly the entire population, wish to attend and get drunk at the funeral, which, like the weather, threatens the tight production schedule.

From these elements, Miss Jones, herself an actress as well as playwright, and who has had like experiences, has constructed a not unamusing but inconsequential comedy. The satire on Hollywood filmmaking – which includes an insensitive director, a tyrannical assistant director, an ambitious young female second A.D., and the randy Caroline – is old news, as are the carryings-on of the County Kerry rustics. The chief interest lies in watching two agile actors slip in and out of sundry parts with speed and mastery, but that is still only a stunt. If the play had as many actors as parts, it would be indistinguishable from the standard small-scale Irish movie. The only new note in the dialogue is the reference to Seamus Heaney, improbable as that incident is.

Watching Seán Campion and Conleth Hill go through their comic routines, well directed by Ian McElhinney, is robust fun. Jack Kirwan has designed a cloudy-sky backdrop and lined the back of the stage with a row of odd footgear. If such simple pleasures do not satisfy you, rough shoes.

A not dissimilar but more sophomoric entertainment is the Drama Dept. mounting of The Book of Liz, by David and Amy Sedaris, who, somewhat overoptimistically, call themselves the Talent Family. It is a spoof on an Amish-like cult, the Squeamish, from which a female member escapes and, after spending a day in a peanut costume, lands a job in an eatery with a Pilgrim theme, the Plymouth Crock Family restaurant.

This anti-heroine, Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, has two salient characteristics: She sweats uncontrollably and she makes the best-selling cheese balls. How these traits are related should pose no serious problem for connoisseurs of Talent Family gross-outs. Four actors play fifteen different parts, which makes them half as versatile as the Irish duo; the two men here, Chuck Coggins and David Rakoff, are downright poor. The women, Amy Sedaris (Liz) and the overloud but able Jackie Hoffman, are fine. Hugh Hamrick’s farcical sets are superior to his staging.

Peter Nichols’s Passion Play is about the ostensibly happy 25-year marriage of James, an art restorer, and Eleanor, a singing teacher and chorister, which suffers when James is seduced by Kate, his and Eleanor’s man-eating young friend, a photographer. It is Kate who broke up the marriage of the just-deceased Albert, an old friend of James’s, to Agnes, who reveals to Eleanor that Kate has her hooks into James. Two other characters, Jim and Nell, are the personified secret selves of James and Eleanor, each conducting a dialogue with his or her outer self. It is all both hilarious and bittersweet by turns, with surprising twists and fizzy dialogue.

Elinor Renfield’s production, partly hindered by the absence of the requisite two-tiered set and by her cutting down the nonspeaking roles from six to four, lacks some much-needed bite. Simon Jones, as James, the homme moyen sensuel, is more moyen than sensuel, but John Curless shines as his unbridled alter ego; Maureen Anderman is a bit too frumpy as Eleanor, with Leslie Lyles too grim as her double. As Kate, Natacha Roi is randily right, but Lucy Martin is off-key as Agnes. It is too bad that because of this production a much better London one could not come over; still, there is enough here to give married couples – and some singles – pause for thought.

At the Belasco Theatre.
Stones in His Pockets
At the Golden Theatre.
The Book of Liz
At the Greenwich House Theatre.
Passion Play
At the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Follies Go Litely