The Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies,” when done right, is one of the glories of the American musical. The new revival, a transfer from the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is done right. Playgoers who despaired of ever seeing an effective mounting of “Follies” and old-timers who despaired of ever seeing one that wasn’t a pale reflection of the legendary 1971 original can plan a visit to the Marquis Theater without trepidation. With eagerness, in fact: Boosted by three especially fine performances, this “Follies” is thrilling and terrific.
Tuner, boasting Sondheim’s most abundant score and somewhat hampered by Goldman’s moody book, has had a famously problematic existence; even the fabled premiere, staged by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, met a mixed reception and proved a financial wipeout. Current edition, directed by D.C. favorite Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (“Finian’s Rainbow”), doesn’t offer the mesmerizing dazzle of the original, but the original was all but smothered by layers of neuroses, ghosts and pretensions. Here, somehow, the problems evinced in virtually all major productions of “Follies” seem sandpapered away.
Present edition offers a strong array of talent. Jan Maxwell, who received Tony nominations for two comedies last season, here displays considerable musical talents as the “dressy but cold as a slab” Phyllis. Maxwell is practically perfect, her performance slightly marred by her closing number, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” The trouble seems not to be with her dancing but with the choreography; the number is done in Jack Cole style, and the performer, rather than her character, seems uncomfortable. Ron Raines is strong as her husband Ben; his climactic breakdown in “Live, Laugh, Love” is especially effective.
Standing out is Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer, the small-time salesman hopelessly in love with the wrong girl. An adept musical comedian (recently in “South Pacific”), Burstein is revealed to be a surprisingly powerful dramatic actor. In his hands, Buddy — for the first time in 40 years of “Follies” watching — makes sense to this viewer. Burstein’s burlesqued rendition of “Buddy’s Blues” is perhaps the highlight of the evening. (Chorus girl Kiira Schmidt, as Margie in this number, deserves special mention for her droll two minutes in the spotlight.)
Bernadette Peters, who gave a revelatory performance last season as Desiree in “A Little Night Music,” makes a bravely original but ultimately unconvincing Sally. The character is admittedly unstable, but Peters plays it like something out of Albee — thus seeming stylistically mismatched with everyone else. When those big ballads come along, we can’t tell whether Sally is struggling with her emotions or Peters is just struggling with the notes.
The stars are supplemented by a crowd of featured ladies whom Sondheim provides solo spots in which to shine, and shine they do. Jayne Houdyshell (as the “Broadway Baby”) and Terri White (as the woman in the mirror) are both ferocious knockouts, with Mary Beth Peil (as Solange from Paree) and Susan Watson (paired with Don Correia in an old-time dance act) every bit as welcome. Biggest surprise is the Franz Lehar/Victor Herbert pastiche “One More Kiss,” from opera singer Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz as her younger ghost, which unaccountably stops the show. Elaine Paige, the Brit star who in years past created such roles as the title character of “Evita” and “Cats” highlight Grizabella, ups the evening’s voltage with flashes of humor and an effective “I’m Still Here.”
Set is functional and costumes generally OK, both outclassed by Natasha Katz’s skillful lighting. (She cannily keeps moving odd-man-out Burstein into shadows, for example.) A key contribution comes from the pit and soundboard. Every bar of Jonathan Tunick’s exquisite orchestration is well played by James Moore’s 28-piece orchestra, while the sound design by Kai Harada renders every note and every word far more clear than is ordinarily the case — all without pasting bug-like microphones on the actors’ foreheads.
Show is scheduled through New Year’s Day, after which it must make way for the incoming revival of “Evita” — unless business remains strong and the Nederlanders can provide an alternate home for the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, that is, in which case this “Follies” could prove a mighty contender come awards season.