book by James Goldman
music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
directed by Eric Schaeffer
through June 9
Stephen Sondheim's most elaborate tribute to the theatre Follies is set in 1971, the same year it premiered on Broadway. Considered by many to be more operatic than standard Broadway musical fare because of its majestic scope, and very cinematic due to its sweep, combining past with present simultaneously in such rapturous detail, Follies does engage most prominently the over 50 crowd. They are the ones that can relate their lives, so full of regret and disappointment, to the four main characters onstage, who try to recapture what they can never attain. Now at the Ahmanson for a six-week run, after a triumphant six months on Broadway, the acclaimed Kennedy Center production of Follies is richly enchanting down to the smallest feather.
The Weismann Theatre is being torn down to make room for a parking lot, and the play takes place at a final party being thrown in honor of the theatrical ensemble, both guys and gals, who made up the Weismann Follies. Two couples Sally Durant (Victoria Clark) and Buddy Plummer (Danny Burstein) and Phyllis Rogers (Jan Maxwell) and Benjamin Stone (Ron Raines) were best friends in 1941, but now there is a big problem. Sally, now married to Buddy, pines for Ben, thinking she is still in love with him. She has two children with Buddy, and his dalliances have made their marriage less than happy. Ben and Phyllis are in a better position financially but are equally unhappy. The youthful ghosts of all four (Lora Lee Gayer, Christian Delcroix, Kirsten Scott and Nick Verina) appear right along side of them to remind them of what once was and was meant to be, but never happened. When Sally and Ben first see each other after 30 years, the old flame is instantly rekindled, causing a jealous Buddy and overly patient but restless Phyllis to concern themselves about the future.
There are many other colorful characters with relevant stories as well. Carlotta Campion (Elaine Paige
) is a fading actress, Theodore and Emily Whitman (Sammy Williams
and Susan Watson
) have devoted themselves to teaching dance, then there are the former follies who are still trying to carve out a theatrical place for themselves like Hattie Walker (Jayne Houdyshell
), Solange LaFitte (Mary Beth Peil
), Stella Deems (Terri White
), Sandra Crane (Florence Lacey
) and Heidi Schiller (Carol Neblett). All of them have a musical number that puts their current lives in proper perspective, like Carlotta's "I'm Still Here", a true Follies
anthem and Hattie's "Broadway Baby", showing the long struggling road of survival that is show business.
Sondheim's music is thrilling and there is no better sequence in the entire show than "Loveland" where the real pain of Sally and Buddy and Ben and Phyllis' conflicts segues into a Follies fantasy in which each plays out an individual folly. For Buddy, it's "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues", for Sally "Losing My Mind", for Phyllis "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" and for Ben "Live, Laugh. Love". Not only are the musical numbers brilliant, but it is the totally unexpected way in which Sondheim manages to pinpoint each character's hangup in a novel, enjoyable manner that is striking. This is a perfect example of how fantasy and reality collide to the max, where show-stopping numbers and real life problems play off each other, and it is difficult to separate them. Pure genius!