Given Signature Theater a.d. Eric Schaeffer’s reputation as a savvy interpreter of Stephen Sondheim, it is little wonder his first mounting of Sondheim’s 30-year-old “Follies” would have Washington audiences atwitter. The initial run was sold out before opening night, a first for the theater. It is also Signature’s largest undertaking to date, and the intimate facility practically bulges — too much so — with the 36-character musical (orchestra hidden backstage). Schaeffer and crew have made it as grand an occasion as possible, handing some of the principal roles to Broadway veterans and turning costume designer Robert Perdziola loose. Orchestrations are Jonathan Tunick’s from the Roundabout Theater Co. production.
Schaeffer has emphasized the seedy aspects of Sondheim’s and writer James Goldman’s tale of infidelity, youthful passion and lost dreams set at a reunion of showgirls. It begins as soon as the lights come up on Lou Stancari’s disheveled set, backstage at a theater that once housed the Weissman Follies, where the final party is being held before the wrecker’s ball. The theater’s macabre ghosts, eyes blackened and costumes frayed, glide prominently among the players when not hiding in lighting designer Chris Lee’s many shadows.
There is much to like here. For the most part, Signature’s performers do a credible job with Sondheim’s score, considered by many to be his best. Schaeffer has taken pains to highlight the disintegrating relationships and character flaws so finely detailed in Goldman’s book, and to contrast them with the show’s bouncier numbers. Nowhere is the distinction so effective as act two’s climax, when a tiresome tirade is abruptly interrupted by the uplifting follies. Perdziola’s lavish dance costumes are a delight.
But the production is not a total success. Performances are uneven, most notably within the quartet of principals. Judy McLane as the elegant Phyllis Rogers Stone is the most believable of the four, every inch a savvy and sarcastic entertainer, as well as a standout in her big Follies number, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” But Florence Lacey is frumpy and whiny as the innocent Sally Durant Plummer, so eager to pursue Phyllis’ naughty husband.
Among the men, Joseph Dellger is strong as Ben Stone. His beefy voice dominates the show, especially in act one’s “The Road You Didn’t Take.” But Harry A. Winter doesn’t cut it as the philandering salesman Buddy. And neither performer truly finesses Goldman’s difficult script, which calls for obsessive self-pity from chronically dishonest people.
Elizabeth van den Berg does a nice turn with “Ah Paris” and Dana Krueger is convincing as Heidi Schiller. The young and innocent versions of the cast’s embittered senior citizens also capitalize on their restricted moments. But Signature stalwart Donna Migliaccio is surprisingly timid as the ultimate showbiz survivor in “I’m Still Here,” one of the musical’s biggest numbers. Similarly, Judy Simmons doesn’t give “Broadway Baby” the fiery treatment auds might expect.
The Signature’s tiny stage is also a problem. Used so effectively for other Sondheim mountings including “Sweeney Todd” and “Passion,” it is simply too confining for “Follies'” big company numbers. But it does work nicely for the many intimate moments that help make this one of Sondheim’s most enduring works. One hopes that when the Signature company eventually moves into a larger facility to be constructed nearby, it will consider remounting “Follies” with the expanded production it deserves.