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Martin Maidenberg

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So Much To Love, So Much To Regret

Posted: 07/12/11 05:29 PM ET

by Marty Maidenberg and Jonathan Turitz

Stephen Sondheim's seminal and dazzling 1971 musical, Follies, having just finished its successful run at Washington's Kennedy Center, is now en route to Broadway. Scheduled to open in September, this production, like so many that have preceded it, is more daring than definitive, an impossibly gorgeous tapestry of shimmering music and incisive lyrics undermined by main characters who are as evanescent as the ghostly showgirls who hover over the evening's proceedings.

Here, the present is 1971. The former home of the Weismann Follies is about to be torn down, precipitating a reunion of all the living showgirls -- chief among them Sally Durant Plummer and Phyllis Rogers Stone, played by a struggling Bernadette Peters and a galvanic Jan Maxwell. Having not seen each other over the last 30 years, the women along with their respective husbands, Buddy and Ben -- all former best friends -- must confront the demons of past and present and face the harsh disappointment of their sad, sad lives.

To ratchet up the pathos and irony, each of these principals is paired with their younger self. At times, they may simply observe, oftentimes joining in song or dance, but forever reminding us of the wistful promise of what might have been. How could you not get a lump in your throat hearing the young Ben tell his fresh faced Phyllis how much she's "gonna love tomorrow" when we know what tomorrow will bring? Sure it stings, but it also makes for one hell of a party.

That's not to say Follies is about these four troubled souls; its ambitions are far greater. This equally enjoyable and confounding musical has always been more about ideas and emotional resonance than plot. Each character either takes us through the cognitive cobwebs of his past or the clear-eyed regret of the present. While watching the dreams of these individuals dissipate before our eyes, we can't help but squirm in our seats. As they confront life's bittersweet realities, we too must connect with our own personal demons and the ghosts that lie in the shadows of memory.

In this looking glass, Sally has the most to win and lose; it's her last chance to finally recapture the love of her life, Ben, and exit stage right from a husband she has come to see as a "buddy" -- not a lover. Bernadette Peters, looking radiant in her scarlet dress and blood-red lipstick seems to be bursting with life and possibility. When she first encounters Ben, Ms. Peters infuses "Don't Look At Me," with all we have come to love and lament about her stage roles -- the Kewpie doll exclamations, raised eyebrows, pouty lips--but, alas, all her posturing cannot help the character of Sally materialize. When she first encounters Ben, Ms. Peters needs to not only convey unabashed excitement, but three decades' worth of longing over the one that got away. Similarly, when Ms. Peters sings "In Buddy's Eyes," one of Sondheim's most gorgeous pieces, no irony registers when she exults in how she's "still the princess, still the prize" in the eyes of her husband. So, with no emotional layers to peel back throughout the evening, we are left with just a delusional cipher. This becomes particularly problematic in the Act II "Loveland" numbers, where each character dives head first into mental collapse. Peters is given the cabaret classic, "Losing My Mind." But just as she did (to better effect) in "A Little Night Music," she attempts to substitute tears for true emotion and heartache. The princess has just realized she will never get her prince. What should be chilling simply registers as bathetic.

Jan Maxwell fares much better with Phyllis. In contrast to Ms. Peters, Maxwell has imbued her character with all the requisite emotions. Lacerating one moment, empathetic the next. A woman teeming with rage and flailing with disappointment. Maxwell deftly paints Phyllis as the rich, suburban housewife, but makes damn sure we can see the tigress that once ensnared Ben. Her searing rendition of "Will I Leave You?, "where all that pent up rage finally finds its voice is nothing short of miraculous. We can only hope Ms. Maxwell and the choreographer, Warren Carlyle, will hone her awkward dancing in her folly, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." (No excuse given Maxwell's phenomenal gams.) As her husband, Ron Raines projects the necessary bravado of Ben -- a man whose good looks and charm have gotten him far in life, but is still tortured by insecurities. Danny Burstein gives a touching performance as Buddy, a man who knows that his feelings for Sally will never be requited. If it seems unlikely -- particularly in these times -- to feel sorry for a guy who's cheating on his wife to assuage his loneliness, Mr. Burstein banishes all doubt. Buddy emerges as the saddest and most realized character in Follies.

Despite this heavy blanket of melancholy, Follies is interspersed with lighthearted re-enactments of many of the signature musical numbers made famous by the Weismann starlets in attendance. While serving as an emotional palate cleanser, these pastiche songs allow us to delight in watching a bunch of grande dames strut their stuff. But listen closely to what they're saying: they are also here to remind us how life rarely lives up to our expectations. To this end, Linda Lavin gives a nice take on "Broadway Baby" as does Terri White in her showstopper, "Who's That Woman?" These highpoints are offset by the utterly misguided rendition of the Sondheim classic, "I'm Still Here," by Elaine Page and the sunken soufflé of "Ah, Paris!," dismissively and dismally sung by the ancient disco impresario, Régine. (Word has it she's being replaced on Broadway. Quelle surprise. )

If all of this appears overwhelming for the characters, it is doubly so for the audience, who must juggle the intertwined major and minor characters, their backstories, as well as the larger themes of lost love, unfulfilled promise and aching regret.

True, in director Eric Schaeffer's capable hands, all of the notes of loss and sorrow register -- they just don't devastate. Despite never fully taking hold of our emotions, this insightful production still manages to awaken our most sobering and gut wrenching visions of where we find ourselves in life and "the roads we didn't take." It's impossible not to marvel at the haunting nature of Schaeffer's vision -- heightened by the ghostly showgirls standing vigil around Derek McLane's decaying theater -- a perfect mirror of the human detritus on stage.

But it is in the most unexpected of places where the grand ambitions of the show's titanic originators -- Stephen Sondheim, James Goldman, Hal Prince and Michael Bennett -- are fully realized. In the beginning of Act II, the oldest Weismann girl at the party steps into the fading light to sing alongside her younger self. "One More Kiss" speaks to the fleeting nature of life and the importance of never looking back. Such a quiet moment in this boisterous show, yet one that packs more emotional wallop than all of Act I. At long last, we come face-to-face with the naked, raw emotion we have only been hearing about and occasionally experiencing. Suddenly, all the implausibilities and weaknesses of Follies dissolve and we are left with the choking reality that life rarely turns out as we plan. Now it's up to Mr. Schaeffer and the rest of his formidable cast making the jaunt north from D.C. to make sure the rest of us never feel the need to look back with regret.