10 February 2007 (Sat), Encores!
The opening show of the 2007 Encores! season, which is saluting the Ziegfeld Follies-type format. I wouldn’t have thought that Follies is a show that they would have chosen, since it’s still commercially produced – including two major productions within the last 4-5 years at Paper Mill and on Broadway – and thus hardly lost or forgotten. But the production has apparently generated the biggest response in the history of the Encores! series, and they actually had to add an extra performance on Monday, a first, in order to accommodate the crowds. I hadn’t seen Follies since the mid-1980s London production, which I remember only as being confusing. But given the show’s near-legendary status, the buzz surrounding this production (including a fantastic NY Times review) and the star-filled cast, it was hard not to be excited.
The show proved worth the wait. First, the staging was absolutely first-rate. The director did a fantastic job of intermingling the leads with the ghosts of their former selves, all on a much-reduced playing space and with only a week of rehearsal. It was always clear who was who, and the story seemed easier to follow than ever. With all the exits and entrances of the many characters throughout the show, I was really impressed by the way this was carried off. The songs were all wonderfully staged (other than “One More Kiss”, largely because of the singer’s infirmity). I was most taken with the awesome blending of old and new in “Who’s That Woman?” and “The Story of Jessie and Lucy”. “Beautiful Girls” was effective enough as well in that limited space.
There were three small stairs with lights in the middle from the stage to orchestra level, topped by another small set of stairs from which the “girls” could appear. The set was fairly abstract, and the costumes were suggestive rather than truly gorgeous. The main flies were curtains, and the proscenium frame that features in all Encores! productions was designed to look like it was rotting in order to evoke a theatre in decay. It all worked splendidly. They opened the back wall up at the end for a nice effect, as if the characters were leaving the theatre. Interestingly the orchestra was again laid out flat as in Of Thee I Sing; apparently they’re happy with this, though I still think it looks better in tiers as in Chicago so that we can see the musicians fully.
The actors were well chosen and for the most part superb. In particular, Donny Murphy as Phyllis was spectacular. Her part can be pretty tricky, since her sarcasm can lapse pretty easily into meanness. I thought she had a great balance. I’ve never seen her songs done better, the most memorable being her delivery of “The Story of Jessie and Lucy” in that slinky red dress. Hers was pretty much the definitive performance of the night. Another standout was Michael McGrath as Buddy. I didn’t know he was such a good dancer or strong presence (he was in Wonderful Town with Donna Murphy but not in such a key role). His best of several good numbers was “The Right Girl”, which he danced to perfection. Victor Garber as Ben was his usual fine self, though his part doesn’t really allow for a lot of showiness. One problem point: when he seemed to be forgetting his lines in his final song, I’m not sure a lot of people realized that this was called for in the script, which takes the point away (he’s supposed to be suffering a nervous breakdown). That may be the director’s fault as well, but in any event it didn’t come off right.
Christine Baranski was a treat. Sadly she didn’t really deliver the goods in “I’m Still Here”, failing to rise to the ending. Still, I always enjoy seeing her, and she was well cast in the role. The best of the rest was absolutely Mimi Hines, who did a hilarious “Broadway Baby” that brought down the house. I would love to see her again. Joanne Worley was also fun. The opera singer who did “One Last Kiss” sang it beautifully, but it was uncomfortable to see her walking (waddling) with such difficulty, whether from old age or weight or both. I’m sure that this limited the staging possibilities, since she could barely get down the stairs in the “Beautiful Girls” sequence. Everyone else was pretty much ideal.
The book is still a mess, particularly at the end – surely they can’t expect us to believe that Buddy would take Sally back after she’s tried to dump him for Ben? And would Ben really behave so despicably? Or go home with Phyllis (and vice versa) after her “Would I Leave You”? The rest amounts to a bunch of character sketches with a lot of undeveloped characters. It reminds me of Company in a way, as a lot of disparate people are singing songs related by theme but not enlightening in terms of their own selves. I understand that the show is also addressing America’s deflated sense of self in the post-Vietnam era, and so on and so forth, but it’s hard to take that seriously. The author would have done better to concentrate on resolving the issue with the two couples.
Still, there are those songs. What a cornucopia of great music, all in tune simultaneously with both past and present, and better with every hearing. I’ve never been happy with the cynicism of “Will I Leave You?”, and I still have lyric issues with the opening of “Losing My Mind”:
The sun comes up, I think about you,
A coffee cup, I think about you…
The verb phrase just doesn’t match with the rhyming noun; it sounds forced. But the score otherwise is about as good as it gets in a Broadway musical, even more so in the context of the show. My favorite remains “One More Kiss”, which is such a thrill at that point in the show. Nothing will ever top Company in my own mind, but there’s plenty of ammunition for those who argue that this is Sondheim’s finest score.
In total, this is one of the best Encores! productions I have ever seen. They’re talking about taking it to Broadway, which seems highly unlikely given its difficult reception in past productions. Also, Donna Murphy, the real knockout in the cast, is evidently already committed to something else. I’m not sure how the production would work in a Broadway theatre, where audiences would expect more glamour (and an ending that made more sense). But I have to say that this show alone was worth the trip to New York.