I recently had the pleasure of seeing the revival of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Follies at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. I had never seen the show before, but I had a feeling it would be a treat, partly because of Sondheim's enduring reputation as perhaps the defining composer of musical theatre to date, and partly because of the star-studded cast, including the likes of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige. I was not disappointed; on the contrary, I loved this show more than I ever expected to. It might seem like it caters to older audiences, and it certainly has a mature sensibility about it, but I was enthralled from start to finish despite my meager 23 years. The themes in this show are timeless, the music gorgeous, and the performances were second to none.
From the moment I walked into the theatre, I was embraced with the melancholy mood of the show. The stage and curtains were dilapidated and I could hear the faint sounds of an abandoned theatre: the movements of rodents scurrying unseen, the creaks of decaying floorboards and rafters, and the eerie echo of the music from the theatre's heyday. With the mood set, the show began. Follies tells the story of a reunion of the cast and crew of "Weismann's Follies," a fictional musical reviews based on "Ziegfeld Follies," before the demolition of the precious theatre where it took place so many years ago. The stars reunite and recreate some of their favorite performances from their youths while the romantic entanglements of the two main couples are revived and re-complicated.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show is the way that time is portrayed. The characters had staged flashbacks featuring their former, more idealistic selves, and they were often onstage together with their youthful counterparts in poignant scenes that reflected their previous hopes and unfulfilled desires. Even as the performers socialized at their reunion, the ghosts of showgirls traversed the upper decks, haunting them with both the glamour and the regrets of their pasts. As a literature major and total theatre geek, I was in existential heaven.
I think my favorite part of the show was enjoying the stunning performances of some of musical theatre's brightest talents. My trip to Follies was partly motivated by my need to see the great Bernadette Peters on the Broadway stage at least once, and did I ever. Seeing living legends perform in such an intimate setting is a real thrill and one of the best parts about going to the theatre. You kind of hope that some of their talent will rub off on you (if only). Peters played the wounded, eccentric Sally Durant Plummer with a fractured grace and sang the signature songs "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" beautifully. And speaking of living legends, Elaine Paige (the original Evita and Grizabella from Cats) dazzled with her spirited rendition of "I'm Still Here." The charismatic Danny Burstein delivered an honest portrayal of Buddy, tragically in love with a wife who has a wandering eye, and Ron Raines delivered a stately and brutal portrayal of the successful yet unfulfilled Ben.
In the midst of many great performances, I must say that I was blown away by the performance of Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, Ben's jaded wife. I had never seen her onstage, but her reputation precedes her (she has an impressive four Tony nominations). Her fervent rendition of the heart wrenching "Could I Leave You?" will be forever etched on my mind and her dazzling and athletic performance of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" was the energetic capstone of the show. If she isn't nominated for a Tony Award for this role, I will be very surprised.
Overall, my experience with Follies was an intellectual treat and a defining moment for me as a theatre connoisseur. Discovering Stephen Sondheim's remarkable score was a pleasure, and seeing some of the best, most respected stage actors alive today interpreting this gem of a show was profoundly satisfying. For theatre fans, offerings like Follies are true gifts. It is, quite simply, a must-see show.