“Follies” is that rare Broadway transfer that has traveled well from its recent Gotham stint, and the reason is simple: Victoria Clark replaces the miscast and vocally compromised Bernadette Peters. Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece about a showbiz reunion and two marriages gone bad now works on all four cylinders, Clark being joined by the deservedly Tony-nommed Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines and Danny Burstein. To indulge in cliches, hearing Clark sing “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Losing My Mind” and “Too Many Mornings” is worth the price of admission.
Of course, she sings “Too Many Mornings” with Raines, a great baritone. And for once, “Follies” gets it act one showstopper as the lights dim for intermission.
Along the way, there’s also vocal fireworks from Jayne Houdyshell (“Broadway Baby”), Elaine Paige (“I’m Still Here”), Terri White (“Who’s That Woman”), and Carol Neblett and Leah Horowitz deliver an absolutely ravishing “One More Kiss.”
Most of these singer-actors are repeating their New York performances, but the perfs here are tamped down, more in sync with each other, not so aggressively showy. And they can all sing Sondheim’s music!
“Follies” is great because the music is great. James Goldman’s book famously lost the Tony in 1972 to the almost-forgotten “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which went on to win the Tony for best musical. (So much for awards meaning much of anything.) He tinkered with the book before his death, and there’s been much editing since then. The dialogue has been spiffed up, and it’s a tighter show. But the reunion still takes a while to achieve any real justification. A reunion is a situation, not a dramatic premise.
“Follies” keeps getting staged because of the Sondheim score and because theater people obviously love staging it, more perhaps than auds love seeing it. (Has there ever been a commercially successful production of the show?) Like “Gypsy,” “Follies” has turned into one big Broadway anthem, even though its four principals are not really stage animals. They were chorus boys and girls long ago in a Broadway show, and they shared a glorious moment, but the theater doesn’t really drive their decisions the way it does a Mama Rose or a Gypsy Rose Lee. Sally (Clark) attends the reunion to meet an old boyfriend. We never know why Phyllis (Maxwell) shows up, and their husbands (Burstein and Raines) are clearly just along for the ride.
Crix have not been kind to full productions of “Follies,” preferring concert versions where star turns often fill the lesser roles and serve to goose the rather endless procession of old divas at the beginning of the show. This was even a problem at the rather sleepy Wednesday matinee I attended of the original Broadway production where people didn’t really know such minor legends as Yvonne De Carlo, Fifi D’Orsay, Mary McCarty and Ethel Shutta. Plus, no one in that show could sing. And Sondheim was criticized for writing nothing but pastiche. Walter Kerr in the New York Times preferred “No, No, Nanette” that season, writing “No, No, ‘Follies,’ Yes, Yes, ‘Nanette.’ ” (So much for reviews meaning much of anything.)
Eric Schaeffer helms a magnificent cast at the Ahmanson. His entrance of the divas is pedestrian, other directors have offered a more kaleidoscopic interplay of the principals with their younger selves, but the build up to the “Loveland” nightmare hits all the right notes. And everyone does full justice to Sondheim.