The unforgiving economics of Broadway and the challenging nature of the material make a full-scale revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies” — a show forever defined by Harold Prince’s lavish, landmark 1971 production — about as likely as Florenz Ziegfeld’s resurrection. So given that sad reality, the emotionally ravishing Encores! staging might be the most gratifying consolation prize musical theater lovers could hope for. Cast to near perfection and directed with precision and sensitivity by Casey Nicholaw, the superlative presentation puts a fresh shine on the reputation of a brilliant, troubled work.
Unearthing a handful of yesterday’s musicals in limited-run semi-concert stagings each season, the Encores! series often yields a memorable star turn or two but rarely assembles such a knockout ensemble as here. The two female leads alone represent a dream team. It’s no surprise that Victoria Clark and Donna Murphy give luminous performances — though the nuanced refinement of their work as Sally and Phyllis, respectively, is remarkable given the short rehearsal time.
What’s less expected is the extent to which director-choreographer Nicholaw connects with the material. Someone whose principal New York credits are engineering the meta-theatrical burlesque of “The Drowsy Chaperone” or marshaling the dancing knights of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” seems an odd choice for this melancholy reflection on the end of the American dream. But the technical accomplishments of Nicholaw’s staging are matched by its subtle insights.
In a musical almost schizophrenically torn between rhinestones and rubble, what’s most impressive is the production’s assured equilibrium — between past and present, party and wake, illusion and reality, regrets and reconciliation, not to mention a score divided between naturalistic book numbers and artful pastiche. With its stark exploration of the roads not taken and the cruel march of time, “Follies” inevitably is a show that resonates with deeper, sharper pangs as you get older. Nicholaw and cast manage to mine its haunting poignancy while never underselling its celebratory aspect.
The ethereal mood that underlies the reunion of former Weismann’s Follies girls at the soon-to-be-demolished theater where they once performed is communicated immediately in the eerie strains of Sondheim’s overture, as flashbulbs pop and sequin-clad showgirls brandishing ostrich-feather fans drift in dreamy slow-motion across the rear of the stage.
This is a more elaborately designed staging than the Encores! norm. William Ivey Long and Gregg Barnes have supplied character-defining variations on basic black 1970s evening wear for the party guests, paler period garb for their younger selves (white tuxes for the boys, silvery gray dresses for the girls) and plenty of sparkle for the reincarnated Follies numbers. Those songs are sprinkled throughout as party turns by the old gals and then — in Goldman and Sondheim’s audacious show within the show — in quick succession as reality implodes to make way for a highly theatrical realm of the imagination.
Ken Billington’s lighting expertly calibrates the shifting moods, while set designer John Lee Beatty effectively modifies his standard Encore’s feature of a gilt-framed proscenium, this time cracked and crumbling, draping the stage with tattered curtains.
Clearly, no production will ever equal the opulence of Boris Aronson’s original designs. But Beatty economically suggests similar visual ideas — a glitzy, flaming red curtain that drops for the Follies sequence; a hint of the grand staircase down which the “Beautiful Girls” descend. (Arthur Rubin, who sang that number in the celebrated 1985 Lincoln Center concert, returns as Roscoe and remains in fine voice.)
The show’s echoes of an era of disenchantment are channeled through the unhappy marriages of two former Follies girls. Clark’s Sally is too trim and put-together to fit the Phoenix housewife whose time in the New York spotlight feels a million miles away. But she sells the unguarded, unsophisticated character in more resourceful ways, dissolving with moving vulnerability into tremulous girlishness upon re-encountering Ben (Victor Garber). Michael McGrath keeps a judicious lid on the nebbishy aspects of Sally’s husband Buddy, conveying a soulful sense of a hurt man who keeps an adoring young lover on the side but is hopelessly devoted to a woman he knows has never fully loved him.
Looking slender and regal, Murphy’s acerbic line readings and beyond-bored cynicism make her Phyllis the staging’s most incisive characterization. More crucially, she slowly peels away layers to show the softness and yearning beneath the brittle shell. As her former politician husband, Garber is a little too cold but brings the right mix of suave smoothness and numb cancellation from a life of emotional dissatisfaction.
In the second act in particular, the problems that have always plagued Goldman’s book remain apparent. In this truncated version, Sally’s naive belief that Ben will drop everything to run off with her is insufficiently set up to be plausible. But the show’s structural challenges are handled well by Nicholaw, who blurs and distinguishes the time shifts as necessary.
While Garber had some minor pitch problems on opening night, all four leads put across their numbers with depth and conviction.
Clark’s “In Buddy’s Eyes” is a heart-wrenching display of dishonesty, a woman bravely consoling herself for having married her fall-back choice. And she mesmerizes in a torchy “Losing My Mind,” delivered almost statue-like in a vintage Hollywood white glamour gown. Garber does a rueful “The Road You Didn’t Take” and McGrath’s high point comes in “Buddy’s Blues,” juggling buffoonery with dark self-knowledge.
Phyllis’ big numbers are in the closing stretch but Murphy makes the wait worthwhile with a bravura “Could I Leave You?” of scathing coolness, and a sizzling take on the Cole Porter-esque “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” vamping it up in a killer red hoochie dancer outfit and basking in the adulation of her chorus boys.
Nicholaw ups the dance factor from the usual Encores! quota, including a lovely “Bolero d’Amore,” with veteran terp team the Whitmans (Anne Rogers, Robert E. Fitch) flanked by their younger selves (Denise Payne, Barrett Martin). The 1940s ghosts of the principal couples (Katie Klaus, Curtis Holbrook, Jenny Powers and Colin Donnell) have their shining moment in the energetically staged bracket, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”/”Love Will See Us Through.”
Musical highs are too many to mention, but among the featured players, Yvonne Constant nails the laughs and the clever lyrics of “Ah, Paris!” with clarity. With her cartoon features and wry world-weariness, JoAnne Worley is a great sport, leading the girls in the rousing “Who’s That Woman?” Lucine Amara and Leena Chopra sing the Viennese waltz, “One More Kiss,” beautifully; and Mimi Hines claims new ownership of “Broadway Baby,” her mix of brassiness with a self-effacing shrug making the song a showstopper.
The most frequently performed “Follies” song and an anthem for showbiz survivors is “I’m Still Here.” Christine Baranski is too young to fit the mold of a seen-it-all star deep into her decline and doesn’t invite the same free associations as former Carlottas like Yvonne De Carlo or Dolores Gray. She also doesn’t quite have the vocal power to sock across the number. But Baranski’s comic timing is impeccable as ever and her vital characterization makes the song work for her.
This is one of the richest and most complex scores in musical theater history and certainly the best Encores! presentation in recent memory. Its only really detrimental shortcoming is that it runs just six performances.