“Follies,” which premiered at the Winter Garden in 1971, begins with a fictional producer, inspired by the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld, introducing his showgirls at the “first and last reunion” in a decaying theater marked for demolition to make way for a parking lot. With a last look at his glamorous legacy, he laments, “They won’t be coming down these stairs again.” In essence he was correct, but in “Follies” the lives of the chorus girls endure. They parade down the stairs once more, with a regal grace, in a glorious new production at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Robert Johanson’s stunning new staging recaptures the splendor, the acerbic bite and the wryly nostalgic backstage flavor of a seminal musical.
A multitude of treasures awaits a new generation of theatergoers. The score by Stephen Sondheim remains a grand and lilting pastiche of legendary musical comedy styles. But the songs are every bit his own: cunning melodic motifs laced with provocative lyrics that dutifully define each character with clarity and purpose.
James Goldman’s book, once considered problematic, is a serviceable and many-layered structure, merging past and present with resonating counterpoint. Yes, it is dark. Yes, it deals with manic depression, rocky marriages, career disappointments and the ache of aging. But it links bittersweet memories of the past with an homage to survivors of a glorious age.
On the Millburn stage is an impressive assemblage of stage and screen veterans. Dee Hoty is Phyllis Stone, the sleek, brittle-tongued and bitterly disappointed wife of Ben (Laurence Guittard). Analyzing her options in “Could I Leave You?,” Hoty turns the song into a marital slice-and-dice triumph. She is also divinely spicy in a sophisticated striptease, “Ah, But Underneath.” (The song, written for Diana Rigg in the l987 London production, replaced “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” from the original Broadway version.)
Guittard is terrific as her cynical mate on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and he addresses his own personal demons in the numbing finale, “Live, Laugh, Love.”
Donna McKechnie is the sweetly naive housewife Sally Durant Plummer, married to the philandering Buddy (Tony Roberts), and she defines the art of torch singing with “Losing My Mind.” Roberts reveals Buddy’s indecision with mounting angst in “The Right Girl,” while his personal specter is danced with feverish fury by Billy Hartung.
Ann Miller, of course, is a real movie star from Hollywood’s musical Golden Age, and the epitome of Carlotta Campion, who sings the anthem of survival “I’m Still Here.” It’s almost difficult to separate star from character. Stunning in sparkling blue and gold sequins, the leggy septuagenarian stops the show with her turn, revealing the whole scenario of a life on the boards.
Phyllis Newman as Stella Deems and Liliane Montevecchi as Solange bring full circle to the roles they only teased us with in the l985 Lincoln Center concert version.
Kaye Ballard manages to invest a few precious moments of her impudent comic flair with an attitude of subtle rivalry. She belts out “Broadway Baby” with the punchy vaudevillian flavor one could only imagine was the essence of Fanny Brice.
Eddie Bracken adds dignity and old-world charm as Dimitri Weismann, the gentlemanly impresario who hosts the lavish reunion. Against the flickering candelabras of a long-ago operetta, soprano Carol Skarimbas as Heidi Schiller plaintively renders the Lehar-flavored waltz, “One More Kiss” in a sweet duet with her younger image (Ingrid Ladendorf).
Danette Holden, Meredith Patterson, Michael Gruber and Hartung provide consistently keen counterpoint as the bright young romantic hoofers of the ’40s. Veteran choreographer and recent Theatre Hall of Fame inductee Donald Saddler is paired with Natalie Mosco as the dance team who bought an Arthur Murray franchise.
The Paper Mill creative team has mounted a dazzling production. From the gloomy backstage climate of catwalks, call-boards and sandbags to a proscenium arch adorned with sculptural ornamentation, Michael Anania’s set addresses the seedy grandeur of a faded theatrical temple doomed to the wrecking ball.
Gregg Barnes has costumed the stately showgirls in a gorgeous array of towering headdresses and butterfly wings. The ghostly statuesque beauties who haunt the old showplace float by in shadowy silver and gray gowns.
While some of the principals are committed to other projects, there is a marked and warranted interest in a move to Broadway. Audiences in the ’90s, who have found the murder and mayhem of “Chicago” and the shadowy sleaze of “Cabaret” palatable, may finally be ready for the tart beauty of “Follies.”