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Follies on Broadway

If you are reading this today, chances are you’ve missed it. When this splendid revival opened in New York in September it carried with it the distinction of being a 40-year-old show that had never turned a profit on the Great White Way in its handful of incarnations. I believe that streak has been broken now—but not by much if it has. Stephen Sondheim is often a tough sell for audiences. His cerebral, non-traditional approach to music and lyrics, is not what the bridge-and-tunnel crowd has grown accustomed to. And say what you will about the b-a-t’s, but they’ve kept junk like “Mamma Mia” open for over a decade. By comparison “Passion”, Sondheim’s last production to win a Best Musical Tony(in 1994)has the unfortunate record of being the shortest running Best Musical winner ever on Broadway(280 performances). That show, btw, is slated for a 2013 New York revival, by radical Sondheim enthusiast, John Doyle(Doyle has his actors double as the orchestra—I kid you not—and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Patti LuPone perform as “Sweeney Todd”‘s Mrs. Lovett while toting a tuba). Of course, Sondheim is a genius, and genius always endures a more arduous road than fluff. Try attending a revival of something like the Pulitzer-prize winning “Sunday in the Park with George” with an unprepared group and you’ll see what I mean.              Which brings us to the 2011 Broadway “Follies”, closing today after a celebrated extended run. They may never be able to assemble a cast this rich again. Let’s start with Bernadette Peters—one of our greatest Sondheim interpreters. The last time I saw her was in 1988 in the original run of S. S.’s “Into the Woods”. From my 4th row “Follies” seat it would’ve been easy to convince me that she hasn’t aged a day since. And casting the now 63(!)year old treasure as the 49-year-old character of Sally Durant seems to confirm that others concur. In fact, the only time I didn’t buy something from the character of Sally was when Ms. Peter’s sang of her expanding waistline. I can’t imagine that Bernadette has gained an ounce in the last quarter of a century. She may have been cast for her star power first, but she brings a poignant vulnerability to her Sally that is the crux of this central role. Her rendition of “Losing My Mind” left me unable to erase thoughts of the star’s own personal tragedies of the last decade(google it). Her wounded countenance during this number left my eyes far from dry, and the desire to just hold her overwhelming. I think that’s what it’s supposed to do—so, mission accomplished.  As winning as Peters is in this performance, however, it seems to me that no one will be blocking co-star Jan Maxwell(as Sally’s old roommate Phyllis)from Tony glory come June. Ms. Maxwell, who’s been denied 4 times previously, gives a tour-de-force, especially with her two big solos. “Could I Leave You?” is a roaring response to a damaged partnership that will have those of a certain age recalling their own past shortfalls. Danny Burstein’s Buddy is marvellously awkward and exasperated as Sally’s neglected spouse. He may adore his wife, but he’s no fool. And the only debit I can saddle Ron Raines’ Benjamin Stone portrayal with is that he doesn’t quite match up to the aforementioned trio. The amazing Elaine Paige, predictably, knocks it out of the park with her rousing “I’m Still Here”. Ditto for Jayne Houdyshell’s “Broadway Baby” and Terri White who leads “Who’s That Woman”. The actors who embody the 30 year time-capsule form of Sally, Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, are(for the most part)perfectly chosen.         “Follies”, like much of Sondheim’s work, is deceptively simple. It is certainly about lost love, lost time, choices and our ability/inability to change them. This production’s quite visible “ghosts” greatly compliment the proceedings and are never intrusive. The sets and lighting exude dilapidated and crumbling as any representative of an on-its-last-legs theater should be. Maybe you were able to visit this “Follies” before it goes dark around 5:30 this afternoon. As alluded to earlier, it seems a safe bet that a finer cast will never be assembled for any future revival. On my 1 thru 10 theatre scale with 10 being the highest: “Follies” rates a 9.

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