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August 15th, 2011

Follies

Stephen Sondheim's Follies is being revived, and Ellen got us and Nephew (in town for a couple of weeks to check out the possibility of Making It In The Big Apple) preview tix.  I didn't see the original, in 1971 (my parents weren't big on musicals, and I wasn't one to go to the theatre by myself.  I'm still not, if it comes to that.), and if it's been revived since, I was in Boston and didn't know about it. I have no idea what I would have made of it at 20.  At 60, I loved it.

The play itself is a mess.  The first act is a ghostly tribute to the stage extravaganzas and the great beauties of the first half of the 20th century, with aging actresses reproducing the roles of their past, haunted by the slender, impossibly gorgeous chorines and headliners they once were.  The second act (as frequently happens with Sondheim) is Something Completely Different--a kind of vaudeville rendition of two couples disintegrating, both individually and together.  I was a lot more interested in the first act (as frequently happens with Sondheim) than in the second.  Eleven (11!) wonderful older actresses strutted their undimmed stuff for a mesmerized audience while their gloriously costumed younger selves posed and pirouetted behind them.

Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell were the leads, with more songs than anybody else, but they didn't get the big show-stopping numbers.  Those went to Jane Houdyshell, last seen as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, and before that in Coraline, singing "Broadway Baby" and Elaine Paige singing "I'm Still Here" and Terri White hoofing and belting through "Who's That Woman," and, perhaps most touchingly, Rosalind Elias, who I remember hearing at the Met (Cherubino, I think) in the 60's, singing a sweetly old-fashioned number called "One More Kiss."

I was pretty much on the edge of tears the whole first act.  It was just so beautiful, so poignant, so expressive of the passing of time and what it does and does not take from you.  The beautiful, characterless chorines glittering restlessly in the background while the dumpy or over-thin, wrinkled or worked-on, utterly individual women they grew up to be sang their hearts out in the follow-spot.  The sadness and the triumph of lives lived for art or love or ambition.  Oh, yes, and there's a kind of plot, too, about two chorus girls who were best friends and the two boys who had courted and married them, circling each other with double entendres and vicious little verbal darts, which blossoms, at the end of the act, into full-blown psycho-drama.

The second act should have been the story of how the drama played itself out.  And on one level, it was.  We got to see couples coming together, parting, switching partners, switching back, exploring their past and their present emotions, coming at last to a typically Sondheimian ambiguous conclusion.  It was fine.  I really liked a couple of the songs, (the husbands really came into their own) and the staging was delicious.  I think I see what he was doing--moving from the relative naturalism of an objectively-observed reunion of old chorus girls to the theatrical artificiality of the subjectively-observed drama of four unhappy middle-aged married people--but in the event, the emotional temperature change from delicate, nuanced nostalgia to emotionally violent satire, gave me emotional whiplash.

Still and all.  The music!  The actors!  The production!  The music!  The costumes!  The direction!  THE MUSIC!  Go while it's in previews if you can--I'm betting there won't be any cheap tickets after the reviews come out.

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