Ecstatically Sumptuous Follies Bows at Ahmanson


book by James Goldman
music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
directed by Eric Schaeffer
Ahmanson Theatre
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!

Under Eric Schaeffer's meticulous direction, the entire ensemble work together and separately with the utmost brilliance. It doesn't get any better than this - even the original 1971 cast, which was damn good, might come in a close second to this one, who act the hell out of it. Maxwell is amazing as Phyll. Cool and determined, sexy and in great physical shape - she even turns a cartwheel - she delivers a performance that comes up chillingly winning. Her delivery of "Could I Leave You?" is gutwrenching. Clark brings a unique fragility to the insecure Sally. With gorgeous soprano voice and looking younger and prettier than in previous roles, she lifts what appears to be ordinary and mundane to new heights. Raines as Ben shows an astounding transformation and Burstein makes Buddy affable and surprisingly strong. Elaine Paige is ingenious as Carlotta. Every syllable, every word she utters has vibrant meaning and she is totally alive, vital, giving fresh dimension to "I'm Still Here". Houdyshell and White make delightful troupers, who, like the show, must go on at all costs, as do the endearing Williams and Watson, and Neblett proves her incredible vocal range with "One Last Kiss".  Warren Carlyle's dependably bright choreography dazzles, and Schaeffer's staging with glittering showgirls hovering in the rafters above keep the mood most assuredly haunting. It is a show in itself just to watch these girls as they move their arms and bodies slowly in what appears to be a choreographed ballet. Gregg Barnes' costumes are scrumptious and Derek McLane's beautiful set strikes a happy balance between fantasy and reality, with a definite emphasis on dark and foreboding.

This is definitely a Follies for the ages, in which theatricality and humanity blend to perfection. It is a dauntingly breathtaking endeavor from top to bottom.

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From This Author Don Grigware

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