at the theater: follies & private lives

Broadway’s got me feeling awfully nostalgic this week. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman Follies arrived at the Marquis Theatre in a production that originated at Washington DC’s more-miss-than-hit Kennedy Center. Having sat through my share of half-baked Follies follies I’ll admit to being less than enthused at the prospect of yet another aborted summit attempt. Yet the lure of Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell as a pair of chorines whose lives diverged in the snowy woods of showbiz proved too alluring.  Plus, how ironic that the musical set in a theater soon to be demolished for the sake of another parking lot would take up in a hotel built atop the early graves of two of the Rialto’s most elegant theaters, the Helen Hayes and Morosco. Limited expectations turn out to be a boon to this production, only intermittently directed by Eric Schaeffer. Still, I wish the director had a point of view – or at least a sure hand. Too often he lets his company do their own thing to deleterious effect. Case in point, the wonderfully miscast Elaine Paige, who delivers an oddly vigorous – and strangely accented – rendition of what is perhaps one of the most famous 11 o’clock numbers in musical theater history, I’m Still Here. Teri White and Jane Houdyshell fare much better with the mirror number, Who’s That Woman, and Broadway Baby, respectively, but fun as they are, this isn’t a show about the pastiche of secondary roles; it’s about a mismatched quartet of chorus girls and stage door johnnies and the roads they failed to take. “Never look back” may be the fatal watch cry spun into gossamer strands of wistful regret by Rosalind Elias as the ghost of her younger self joins the elderly diva in the evening’s most affecting and poignant duet but Ben and Phyllis and Buddy and Sally can’t seem to help themselves – they think they’re still young and they want a second act, Fitzgerald be damned.  Boy, oh boy do they get it. In what can only be described as a musical exploration of the human psyche, each of the quartet performs a follies number straight out of Freudian analysis.  Follies is the first – and last – musical I know of to end with a nervous breakdown and yet, somehow it works. On some subatomic level it is deeply affecting to see these desperately unhappy people come apart at the seams. What ultimately redeems them is the Beckettian impulse to pick themselves up and keep going forward: the past is past and they’re not looking back anymore. Down the block Noel Coward is taking quite the different tack. Go back, go back, go back he seems to say; you got it right the first time. (At least as far as marriage is concerned.) Unfortunately the champagne fizz of Elyot and Amanda’s badinage comes over as flat as day-old ginger ale in Richard Eyre’s cheap as chips production imported from London via Toronto. Ostensibly the main attraction is Samantha, I mean, Kim Cattrall – but the lady has all the period style of a fruit crate fallen off an errant truck. She’s not terrible, but she’s by no means good either, doing little service to what is already a tenuously written reality overly dependent on style over substance. Paul Gross’ Elyot has style to spare – and substance, too, come to think of it.  If only some of it rubbed off on the rest of the (mis) cast I might believe the folly of Coward’s happily unhappy ending.

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