"Follies begins with an accelerating drum roll, and a crash of brass. It ends on almost that same crash, over two hours later. What follows is a world having been described, since its 1971 premiere, as Proustian and Felliniesque. Yes, "Follies" is both things, but I prefer using one of Sondheim's own words to describe it. "Follies" is the "diadem" of Musical Theater.
I had many expectations, not all high, about this production at the Warner Theater in Torrance, Connecticut, where David and I caught the Sunday closing matinee. What disappointed me most was the lack of True Theater Queens, such as us, who would flock to anyplace doing "Follies." Much of the audience was of an age group "Follies" was aimed at, but I cannot be sure how much they got out of it. "Follies" is not an easy show to tackle, or to watch.
Simultaneous stories, the converging of past and present, the idea of when meeting people from our past and seeing two people--who we are, and who we were--is covered over the course of the evening, both dramatically and musically. Anyone having been to a class reunion, or a similarly related event, should get it. But Sondheim wants the audience to think conceptually and stylistically--the "realistic numbers" vs. the "pastiche numbers," say--and that is where "Follies" makes demands not all audiences, and theater companies, can meet.
The minute the drum roll sounded, and the spotlight fell on a ghost, I knew this company grasped the magic of "Follies." And, given the limitations of cast and budget, it was a magical production, aided and abetted by the superb twenty-three piece orchestra, giving the score the lushness it needs. And the company, both young and old, rendered it superbly. And "Who's That Woman?," as it should, blew the roof off the theater!
Not that there weren't quibbles. Juliette Koch was so right, in manner and look, for Sally that I felt concern when she seemed to miss the mark on "In Buddy's Eyes." If she can't do that, I thought, how is she going to manage "Losing My Mind," the song most people long to hear. Now, don't go calling me a jaded Theater Queen, unwilling to allow anyone else besides Dorothy Collins or Barbara Cook or Donna McKechnie, to perform the role. No Sally will make me swoon like the last three, but whether Miss Koch was tired, ill, or just pacing herself, she ultimately came through, because her "Losing My Mind" was as wrenching as it should be, and the duet "Too Many Mornings" pure heaven, especially the quiet ending with the orchestra. I swooned over these moments, and Miss Koch was there every step of the way.
I was glad to see Suzanne Powers, as Phyllis, dressed in red, for "The Story Of Lucy And Jessie," probably the show's most exuberant--yet still dark in tone--number, which Powers and company sing and dance to as if doing it for years, yet coming off as fresh as if the first time. Too bad something was not done about Powers' unbecoming dress and blonde wig--were they trying to make her into Blythe Danner???????? Come on!!!!!!!!!!!!!--but then if her performance had been off in any way, it would not have mattered what she wore. Performance is key to "Follies," and Powers' performance clearly outshone her attire. She was wonderful.
So were the men. I don't know who this William Molnar is, but his Ben Stone was good enough for New York! What a gorgeous voice. When he got to "dreams you didn't dare...are dead," in "The Road You Didn't Take," I knew this was a Ben to reckon with. And his "Too Many Mornings........." exquisite. Chris Gilbert, as Buddy, is wonderfully ordinary...which is what he should be, what the role demands. Vocally, he matches Molnar's Ben as a perfect musical counterpoint, nailing his two second act numbers with the quality merited.
All the supporting women were dazzling, especially the two Heidi Schillers, whose "One Last Kiss" made me shiver. Elyse Jaensky, as Hattie, performed "Broadway Baby" with all its verve, stopping the show on its opening vamp, something I have not seen since Elaine Stritch, back at the NY Philharmonic, in 1985.
Susan Kulp was the thinnest Stella Deems I have seen, but her earthy rendition of "Who's That Woman?' was perfectly in sync with the ensemble. It bears repeating--as it should, this number blew the roof off the theater!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And it was Eve Van Syckle's look of hard bitten cynicism that made her vocals in "I'm Still Here" the true song of survival it is. It was as though the actress was channeling her own survival into the interpretation. How much French is in Priscilla Squires' background may be moot, but her "Ah, Paris!" was pure gold. And Katherine Walker and David Cadwell were aptly cute as the dance couple who sing "Rain On The Roof."
I have always found Young Sally the most touching and heartbreaking of the youthful quartet; someone who knows, even as it is happening, she is missing out in life, and it always breaks my heart. Shannon Sullivan's portrayal here had that effect, making me wonder about those whose reality that is.
Director Michael Berkeley and choreographer Donna Bonasera have done their homework, for the production's dramatic seamlessness echoes that of Harold Prince, while the choreography showed Michael Bennett's unmistakable influence. Those in the know could see, in this "Follies," the foreshadowing of what was to come with Bennett--"A Chorus Line."
Which I think could be pulled off here, and if so, I will return to Torrance. I wish this "Follies" had more of an ongoing run, so more people could drive to see it.
The audience I saw it with, sadly, did not, I feel, fully appreciate it. A case of casting pearls before swine.
However, this Theater Queen, Raving Queen, call me what you will, thanks Warner Theater and Company for the dazzling pearls it threw at me.