Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

Encores! Follies
By: Victor Gluck
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JoAnne Worley and the Ladies performing “Who’s That Woman?”
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

To honor the centennial of the Ziegfeld Follies which started in July 1907, NY City CenterEncores! has created an entire season devoted to this theatrical art form. First up is Follies, the James Goldman/Stephen Sondheim musical about the reunion of the Ziegfeld girls, here called the Weismann girls. Next up on March 29 is the 1932 Moss Hart/Irving Berlin musical comedy, Face the Music , about a Ziegfeld-like producer trying to raise the money during the Depression to put on a Follies show. Finally the third show, Stairway to Paradise, an original Encores! production, subtitled “50 years of Revue in Review,” opens on May 10.

Follies would seem a strange choice for a concert staging because the original production was famous for its lavishness. Its dream sequences require costuming that suggests an onstage Ziegfeld show and its Loveland sequence requires revue costumes. In addition, the Roundabout Theatre Company revived it on Broadway in 2001. On the other hand, the price tag for a fully staged production would most probably be prohibitive. The acclaimed original production was a financial failure. It is also a pleasure to hear a luscious Sondheim score played by the 30 piece orchestra conducted by Eric Stern, who has previously conducted such Sondheim scores as Gypsy and Sunday In the Park With George on Broadway. As always, the Encores! performance returned the show to its opening night text, plus the “ Loveland” lyrics written for its London debut in 1987.

Since the beginning Follies has always been cast with musical theater stars and this production is no different: Christine Baranski, Philip Bosco, Victoria Clark, Yvonne Constant, Victor Garber, Mimi Hines, Michael McGrath, Donna Murphy, Anne Rogers, JoAnne Worley and contralto Lucine Amara, former Metropolitan opera star. If the names do not seem as legendary as in previous productions it must be remembered that as time passes many of its previous stars have been lost: Alexis Smith, Yvonne de Carlo, Ann Miller, Lee Remick, Dolores Gray, etc. Each production of Follies becomes its own time capsule.

Victoria Clark and Victor Garber (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who last had the same duties on The Drowsy Chaperone, another tribute to musicals of the past, has found an excellent solution for the time shifts and flashbacks in this reunion story. Follies concerns the last reunion of the Weismann girls as the Weismann Theatre is about to be torn down in 1971. Former roommates and chorus girls Sally Durant Plummer (Clark) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Murphy,) along with their husbands salesman Buddy Plummer (McGrath) and diplomat Ben Stone (Garber), who they met back in 1941, encounter each other after a gap of 30 years. As they and the other ladies reminisce about their days as Weisman girls, the ghosts of their previous selves appear and reenact dramatic events from their unhappy pasts.

Along with costume consultants William Ivey Long and Gregg Barnes, Nicholaw has chosen to have the party goers all in black and their ghostly counterparts in grey. The Loveland Follies dream sequence in Act Two segues into vibrant reds and blues. This is perfect for Goldman’s complex story which is the American musical theater’s Remembrance of Things Past . Sondheim’s score is famously made up of song pastiches in the styles of the great theater composers from the 1920’s through the 1950s: Sigmund Romberg, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, etc. Each song was greeted rapturously by the Saturday matinee audience, but none more so that the triple duet of Rogers and Robert E. Firth’s “Rain on the Roof,” Constant’s “Ah Paris!” and Hines’ “ Broadway Baby.”

Donna Murphy singing “The Story of Lucy and Jesse”
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Donna Murphy continues to surprise as she adds to her résumé. With Sondheim’s Passion , she proved herself a character actress. With her Anna in The King and I , she became a musical theater singing star. With Wonderful Town she showed herself a consummate comedian. Now with Phyllis in Follies she proves she can be a glamorous chanteuse. Dressed in a red leotard, Murphy gave a dazzling sexy rendition of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”. In Act One she demonstrated that she could make “Could I Leave You?” the show stopper that it is intended to be. Just finished with three and a half years with Light in the Piazza, Victoria Clark made Sally all her own, a confused dreamy woman who has never grown up. She performed “Losing My Mind” standing absolutely still as did Dorothy Collins in the original production and also triumphed.

The legendary role of “Carlotta” is usually given to an actress making a come back. Christine Baranski would seem too young for this role but in fact she is somewhat older than Yvonne De Carlo was when she created it. Baranski, who has not done a Broadway musical since 1991’s Nick and Nora, brought down the house with her simple, direct “I’m Still Here,” a cavalcade of U.S. cultural history over 30 years. As Phyllis’ ; philandering, unemotional husband, Victor Garber cuts a distinguished figure. He makes dramatic interludes out of “The Road You Didn’t Take” and his breakdown number, “Live, Laugh, Love.” As Sally’s salesman husband who did not give her the things she thought she wanted, Michael McGrath delivers “The Right Girl” with more anger and passion than is usually the case. JoAnne Worley has fun leading the Ladies in the Mirror Number, “Who’s That Woman?” in which the Weismann girls are joined by their ghostly counterparts.

Kristen Beth Williams, Michael McGrath and Emily Fletcher performing “ Buddy’s Folly”
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Follies is a musical play that investigates the failure of the American dream as well as reviews the musical theater of the previous 60 years to when it was written. Sondheim’s score comments on the action and characters while at the same time recreating the styles of previous Broadway composers. Often thought to be weak, Goldman’s book stands up remarkably well after 36 years. If it does have one fault, it is that the plot is too schematic, but this may be simply to keep the many characters sorted out. Casey Nicholaw has put Follies back on its feet with polish and elegance. Here’s a toast to those glamorous ladies!

Follies (Feb. 8 - 12)

New York City Center, 55 th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or http://www.nycitycenter.org
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