When producer Harold Prince, songwriter Stephen Sondheim and co-director/choreographer Michael Bennett detonated the eventually unrecouped Follies on Broadway in 1971, they dazzled audiences profoundly with one extravagant sequence after another, starting with ghostly showgirls in Florence Klotz's feathers-and-bugle-beads frippery slowly drifting across Boris Aronson's about-to-be-razed theater set. The fabulous triumvirate was so theatrically cagey that few of the eye-popped, ear-tickled spectators minded James Goldman's libretto focusing relentlessly on two floundering marriages of little soul-stirring, bolstering charisma.
Forty years on, there's no going out on a limb in predicting that Signature Theater co-founder/artistic director Eric Schaeffer's revival at the Marriott Marquis will affect ticket buyers just as potently and will further confirm the high-brow-low-down tuner as among the most thrilling in show-biz annals. That's how strong an echo of the original mounting the dusted-off glimpse is -- for a show very much concerned with sweeping away time's dust. (The 1971 version, which run to somewhere around $800,000, would likely be impossible to replicate at today's inflated costs.)
Unfortunately, Goldman's examination of the unions between Sally Durant Plummer (Bernadette Peters) and Buddy Plummer (Danny Burstein) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Jan Maxwell) and Benjamin Stone (Ron Raines) remains increasingly tedious when they confront one another in tired psychobabble. Nevertheless, haul out the superlatives when they sing about their demons -- even on some of their potentially torpid arias! And when those around them sing and dance with unleashed merriment, look out!
The dramatic mortar in which Prince, Bennett, Sondheim and Goldman chose to wield their matrimony-assailing pestle is the night before the edifice is due to be razed where Sally and Phyllis, both Weismann girls (read Ziegfeld girls), plied their talents. The reunion, arranged by impresario Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin), brings together a handful of other showgirls and vaudevillians who reminisce and eventually strut what survives of their previous strut-worthy stuff -- the previous stuff represented by their ghostly younger selves. Not to mention the Plummers' and Stones' ubiquitous hopeful younger selves (Lora Lee Gayer, Christian Delcroix, Kirsten Scott, Nick Verina).
The parading of Weismann alumnae and alumnus reprising their specialty numbers means that Jayne Houdyshell (in for Linda Lavin of the previous D. C. outing) nails "Broadway Baby," Mary Jane Peil rings effervescing joy from "Ah, Paris!," Susan Watson and Don Correia wax cheerfully nostalgic through "Rain on the Roof," and Terri White leads six of the others through an astonishing "Who's That Lady?" where the dames tap their tootsies off in tandem with their younger incarnations. (There'll be no comparison here between Warren Carlyle's creative choreography and Bennett's earlier indelible work.)
There's so much bring-down-the-house performing during these examples of the brilliantly astute and irresistible Sondheim pastiches that it feels as if the next day's implosion would only be redundant. And when it comes to devastating musical-comedy effects, nothing beats the inspired second-act "Wonderland" segment when each of the principals airs his or her psychological hang-up. In accordance with Sondheim's abiding theme, it's ambivalence in regard to their options that irks them.
As for performing accomplishments in Gregg Barnes's gorgous clothes, Follies yields no first among equals when Peters lets the emotional floodgates open for "Losing My Mind," Maxwell slinks through "The Story of Jessie and Lucy" with the help of an athletic male line (she's already scored big with "Would I Leave You?"), Burstein frolics compulsively for "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" as a pair of doxies chirp alongside him and Raines top-hat-and-cane's it with the company on "Live, Laugh, Love." Kudos, too, to Derek McLane for the wedding-cake-y pink-and-red fabric-tufts stage-within-a-stage he moves into place to obscure the gloomy deteriorating Weismann Theatre stage he's liberally draped with funereal tarpaulins.
The hollow core to Follies seems to stem from what Sondheim explains in his astounding Finishing the Hat volume was the decision to go "plotless" after Goldman and he had set out to develop a back-stage-at-a-show-biz-gathering mystery that became too convoluted. Adding to the problem was Prince's inspiration for its overall look. He's repeatedly reported that the light bulb switched on in his head when he saw a photograph of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the destroyed Roxy. In other words, the director-producer who has habitually given visual excitement priority over substance had an image of lost glory but no story behind it. As a result, the two disillusioned, nagging couples apparently wound up as whatever story there is.
Throughout their over-lapping careers, Prince and Sondheim harbored a pessimistic (not necessarily realistic?) view of marriage and the survival of youthful dreams. Anyone familiar with their works notices that their plagued-by-times-gone-by obsessions are repeated yet again in Merrily We Roll Along. In that one about youthful desires gone up in smoke, the characters aren't haunted by their younger selves. Instead -- since time is reversed during their free adaptation of the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play of the same name -- the troubled participants gradually revert to their young selves.
To the credit of whomever it concerns, however, the Follies subtext, which hones in on living in the past -- as the Plummers and the Stones do -- has weight even if the surtext lacks enough of it. Nostalgia for, and resistance to, the siren song of former times permeates the proceedings. Among the dramatis personae, the happier individuals are the ones who've acknowledged their checkered histories and waved a cheerful goodbye to them.
Weismann has the defining speech on the subject when he says, "I always know when things are over." Sondheim puts it more succinctly with the sentiment "never look back" in his operetta-conjuring "One Last Kiss" -- its exquisite edge provided by Rosalind Elias as Heidi Schiller and, as younger Heidi, Leah Horowitz. Elaine Paige's wise-to-herself Carlotta Campion also expresses practicality in "I'm Still Here," although her show-stopping rendition is doused in more bitterness than most interpreters allow.
But of course, there are moments when looking back is recommended -- and this is one of them. In a theater-going era when anything with assumed marquee value is trussed up for consumer consumption, it's a treat to recall something that -- for the abundance of high-quality theater craft it contains -- truly deserves enthusiastic applause.