Eric Schaeffer’s direction of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is an utter triumph of performance, production, and play. Not since the original production of Les Miserables have I been so breathlessly enthralled and completely swept away in a night of theater.
Driving to the Ahmanson, Thom reminded me that we saw the 2001 revival of Follies at the Roundabout Theater in New York; I had no memory of it. The minute we entered the transformed house of the Ahmanson, I remembered. Though that 2001 production boasted a star-studded cast – one of Sondheim’s most memorable shows was utterly forgettable. But last night – all was redeemed. The Kennedy Center revival come to L.A. is nominated for 8 Tony Awards and I am rooting for every last one of them.
The set design extends into the audience with every inch of the house and balcony draped with dingy fabric transforming it into the decrepit old theater where producer “Dimitri Weismann” has gathered several generations of his once famous Follies Girls and their spouses for a reunion before the old theater is torn down to make way for a parking lot. Bejeweled, feathered, and frocked Follies ghosts haunt the theater and help tell the story of broken hearts, dashed dreams, and the struggle to hold onto hope that drives Phyllis, Sally, Benjamin, and Buddy.
It is a rare piece of ensemble-theater in which each character shines like the one and only star of the show and nearly every song is a showstopper; several times we had to restrain ourselves from leaping to our feet in standing ovations in the middle of the show.
Allow me to gush, starting with Danny Burstein’s deeply layered portrayal of Buddy. Seemingly affable, simple, and sweet, his heartbroken Buddy erupts with dangerous glimpses of a man on the brink singing “The Right Girl” and “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues.” How he manages to avoid devolving into a state of pathetic self loathing is testimony to Burstein’s restraint and nuance.
With brilliant swagger and no small dancing skill, Terri White as Stella proudly leads the ensemble of ladies through the stomping, swaying, and tapping “Who’s that Woman.” Jan Maxwell as Phyllis drenches herself and the audience as well in her remorse and resentment of her ice-castle marriage as she verbally beats her husband with “Could I Leave You.” Later, when Ron Raines’ drops to his knees in desperation it is clear why he is nominated for a Tony in his portrayal of Benjamin.
Not to be missed are the vexed Victoria Clark as Sally, the delightful Jayne Houdyshell as Hattie, grand Mary Beth Peil, regal Carol Neblett, pixie perfect Susan Watson, and ladies and gentlemen: the Sondheim diva herself, Elaine Paige. Sondheim wrote “I’m Here” for Yvonne DeCarlo when she originated the role of Carlotta in 1971; close your eyes and you can conjure her image. But behold, here in 2012, Elaine Paige delivers each punchy, punning lyric with perfect Sondheim meter, intelligence, and charm.
Stephen Sondheim is an American treasure and the Center Theater Group proudly displays the wealth in this beautiful night of brilliance. Run, do not walk to catch FOLLIES!
Follies runs from May 3rd – June 9th at Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.