May I offer my sincere condolences if you missed your chance to see the splendid Encores! production of Follies. I wasn't sure whether Follies would work in a semi-staged concert context, or, for that matter, whether it works at all, having never seen it onstage in any form (if you don't count the YouTube clips of that high school production, and you shouldn't), and having read many conflicting opinions about why it is or is not unproduceable. But the Encores! treatment may just be the ideal staging for Follies, or perhaps Casey Nicholaw is just the ideal director. Because man, did it ever work on Sunday night.
Going in, I was looking forward to seeing Victor Garber, Donna Murphy and Victoria Clark doing their thing; I figured, regardless of how the show worked overall, it would be a thrill to hear those stars doing "Too Many Mornings" or "Could I Leave You?" And it was, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the evening's true high points came when those four were sharing the stage with their supporting cast. The opening was thrilling, packed with rich metatheatricality: the "reunion guests" drifted onstage, as per the script, wearing formal party clothes. But what was happening in the "story" was informed by what was happening in real life: a lineup of past and present luminaries making their entrances one by one, decked out in concert clothes, greeted by applause from an excited audience. Even the irritating "look what a huge Sondheim fanatic I am" geeks (thick as flies in the gallery, where I sat) -- you know, the ones who show up at these events hoping, through enthusiastic applause and vociferous hollering, to impress the rest of us with their deep knowledge of and devotion to the material -- seemed somehow appropriate in that moment. (Although, memo to the man seated to my left: it ain't 1964, you're not in Carnegie Hall, and that isn't Judy Garland down there onstage. So why don't you just calm yourself down, and maybe cool it with the "Brava!" after every damn number. You're embarrassing all of us.) It all worked so well that even the script binders the principals carried around didn't detract too much from the effect. And although it required a bit of an imagination-stretch to believe that this was all happening in the '70s (since nothing in the production design made even the slightest concession to that inconvenient fact), the performers' tuxes and black gowns made for perfect costumes.
When "Beautiful Girls" started, I temporarily questioned my enthusiasm for the opening, because it seemed like perhaps the performers should be making their first appearances now. As each woman entered (again) and struck her pose, there was a smattering of polite applause from the audience, but most people figured they'd already taken care of that. At first it seemed awkward, but as the number went on it seemed appropriately awkward, and by the end of the song the low-impact glamour of it all had me in tears. Score one for you, Follies!
I was in tears again by the end of the "Bolero D'Amour," danced by Anne Rogers and Robert E. Fitch and their ghostly young selves, Denise Payne and Barrett Martin. I started the number watching the younger and far more technically adept couple, figuring, I've already seen Rogers and Fitch do "Rain on the Roof," and it was cute, but now it's time to see some real dancing. But halfway through the number I realized that the older couple, with their physical limitations and their nevertheless elated facial expressions, were the ones to watch. And the contrast had me in tears in seconds. Follies scores again.
I didn't expect to be excited by "Broadway Baby," since I had only a dim idea of who Mimi Hines is, and I feel like I've heard every possible interpretation of that song in my short and possibly misspent theatre-loving life. But Hines wowed me, bringing character and comedy to her rendition without sacrificing tunefulness. Her approach was so fresh that I found myself following her character's "story" as if I didn't know exactly what came next, and so I was terribly disappointed when the other novelty acts ("Rain on the Roof" and "Ah, Paris") joined in on her last verse. I don't know if that was original to this production, but I'd never heard it done that way before, and it robbed Hines of the climax she was working toward. Especially since Yvonne Constant's take on "Ah, Paris" was so exceedingly eccentric that I was concerned she might not make it to the end of the song intact, or at the same time as everybody else.
Speaking of bad choices: I've always disliked Christine Baranski, although until yesterday I couldn't come up with any reasons/bad experiences to back up that opinion. So I figured maybe it was just some arbitrary thing on my part -- after all, other people seem to regard her as a "star," and somehow she was cast as Carlotta in this production. But one verse of "I'm Still Here" gave me plenty of justification for disliking her going forward. She seemed to think the song was called "I (Christine Baranski, a Major Star) Am Still Here (to Seduce You)"; it was as though she wanted to sing "Broadway Baby" but ended up with this song instead. And nobody had explained to her that this song is already funny as written, and there's no need to oversell it with a jokey gesture on every line. Also: it's not a siren-y torch song, so perhaps a little dignity might be advisable. Anyway, not only was her take on the song misguided, but I'd also say it was a bad choice to cast her in the first place, since she's not old or redoubtable enough to do the material justice. Was Carol Burnett busy?
I expected "One More Kiss" to break my heart, because it makes for such a devastating aural experience on both recordings I own. But former Met soprano Lucine Amara hasn't lost enough of her vocal power to make her half of the duet truly pathetic (and she may have had too much power to begin with); she held her own a little too well against her younger self. As a physical presence, however, she couldn't have been more suited to the material. Her limping down the stairs, shadowed by her elegant "ghost," was what started me weeping during "Beautiful Girls." (Do I need to tell you that the overstimulated man to my left nearly fell out of the gallery brava-ing after "One More Kiss"? I don't think I do.)
As for the evening's ostensible stars -- or at least, the performers I was really there to see -- they were as great as they always are. But, in the first act at least, their scenes weren't the most surprising or satisfying in the show. This was partly because their scenes were the most obviously under-rehearsed. If the older performers were a bit rough around the edges during their solos, it only added to the poignancy, but when Ben, Sally, Phyllis and Buddy took center stage, you could see where a few more weeks would have helped pull these difficult characters together and get the performances on the same page. Not that the actors were underprepared, I just felt that they hadn't quite arrived -- and, of course, it's hard to sell "Too Many Mornings" when you're clutching a binder. It also didn't help that I was looking down on the tops of the actors' heads; you'll have to take Brantley's word on the expressiveness of Donna Murphy's facial expressions, because I was only catching her broadest gestures. Thankfully she was working mainly in her broad (and, it must be acknowledged, slightly irritating) "comedy" register, so I don't think I missed too much. And both Murphy and Victoria Clark had clearly done their homework, because from the moment they entered, they were fully, physically in-character, and throughout the show you could tell most of what you needed to know about Phyllis or Sally just by watching the way the women held their bodies (especially when they were standing or sitting next to each other). Watching them go through the "Who's That Woman" combinations in character, along with all the other aging Follies ladies and their young selves, made me laugh and cry at the same time, and if the show had ended there, I'd still have gone home happy. I can't say enough about how well staged, choreographed and performed that song was. Kudos to Casey Nicholaw (also the choreographer).
If you're like me, you read the cast announcement and thought, "Victor Garber! Donna Murphy! Victoria Clark! and... Michael McGrath?" I felt a little sorry for McGrath, going in, because his name was so outshined (outshone?) on the figurative marquee. But he was equally outclassed on the stage, and now I feel sorry for whoever should have gotten the part instead. Gregg Edelman? Chip Zien? Denis O'Hare? Alexander Gemignani? (That's a little inside joke, perhaps funny only to me, about how Alexander G. keeps getting miscast in major roles and then lauded in spite of his middling performances. I'm sure it has nothing to do with his last name. Anyway...) There must be someone with a little more star quality and/or ability that they could have cast. McGrath wasn't bad, but he wasn't anywhere near the level of professionality, presence or polish of the other 3 leads, and he was thoroughly underwhelming in his solo turns. During "Buddy's Blues" he was actually outperformed by the anonymous chorus girls who played "Margie" and "Sally," plus he missed the button at the end by half a beat, which was particularly unfortunate given this production's odd focus on Buddy-as-dancer. And? Not much of a singer. So that was an opportunity missed all around.
Does Follies have a main character, a lead among leads? Alexis Smith made people think it was Phyllis, but on the page I think most people would say the show is really about Ben. This production seemed to suggest that Follies is really Sally's story, and for most of Act One I felt like Victor Garber's Ben wasn't giving Sally enough of a run for her money. Let it be known that I love Victor Garber; if all he'd ever done was Godspell I'd love him just for that. But: Assassins! Damn Yankees! Sweeney freaking Todd! This was the first time I've seen him perform live, and I swooned as I always do at the sound of his gentle, pitch-perfect singing voice... but it is also true that, as a singer, he is the anti-George Hearn, and I noticed the ladies adjusting their positions at the microphones so as not to drown him out during "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs." And in his dialogue scenes he seemed a little too low-key and fidgety, not enough the statesman and diplomat Ben Stone is meant to be. So at the intermission I said to the fiance, with a bit of disappointment in my voice, "Victor Garber isn't knocking my socks off." But I take it all back, because his performance of "Live, Laugh, Love" was absolutely incredible. Honest, intelligent, technically perfect, emotionally devastating and not even the tiniest bit self-indulgent. He played the breakdown so subtly and convincingly that he really seemed to be messing up the song. Lord knows the whole "This show is falling apart!" gimmick is overplayed in this era of the ironic metamusical (and nonmusical -- cf. Lisa Kron's Well), but Garber was so utterly convincing and real that the concept felt completely revolutionary; I felt like I was watching the fourth wall crack for the first time ever, and it was sensational.
And so there is good news and bad news. The good news is, Follies and Victor Garber are even more wonderful than I thought they were. The bad news is, the show's run is already over, and I need something new to look forward to. Oh well, if I weren't at least a little sorry/grateful, it wouldn't be Sondheim, would it?