September 12, 2008
Lyric Stage Flexes Muscle With Sondheim’s ‘Follies’
By IRIS FANGER
Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies" is a show for those in love with the ghosts of theater past - those who sometimes look back at what might have been. Sondheim, and book writer, James Goldman, created a large, messy, wet kiss of an evening, one of my all-time favorites, despite the structural problems.
The Lyric Stage Company's revival of "Follies," its most ambitious undertaking to date, highlights the strengths of Sondheim's achievement, enhanced by possibly his best score and lyrics.
Underlying the stories of former "Follies" performers reuniting 30 years after the final curtain has gone down, is a theme dealing with the fortunes of two couples with failed marriages: Sally (Leigh Barrett) and Buddy (Randolph resident Peter A. Carey); Phyliss (Maryann Zschau) and Ben (Larry Daggett); the theme also addresses the life cycle that begins in high promise and winds down to something darker, laced with regrets.
The visual gimmick is an ensemble split between mature actor- singers, wearing colorful and extravagant costumes, and phantoms of their youth, dressed in black and white, except for the recreation of the old show's numbers.
Although the audience sees the entire cast, the older characters remain unaware of the pale images of themselves, weaving in and out of the action. One problem is when one or several of the characters are highlighted, leaving others to stand around and wait for their turn.
The "Follies" stars have come back to the old theater where they once performed, summoned by impresario, Dmitri Weismann (Arthur Waldstein), before the building is torn down for a parking lot.
While Weismann declares, "If nothing else, I know when things are over, " Sally does not. She's still in love with Ben, her former roommate, Phyliss's husband, and arrives with that unfulfilled romance in her head. Sondheim has given her two songs, "In Buddy's Eyes " and "Losing My Mind," that tear out the heart of the viewer, particularly in Barrett's complex, supremely vulnerable characterization, one of her most impressive in a long history of roles on the Boston stage. She's matched by Boston newcomer and New York stage veteran, Daggett, in his splendid voice and varied emotions as Ben, the pathetic, needy, supposed success story.
Carey as Buddy comes wonderfully alive in his song-and-dance solo, "The Right Girl;" Zschau makes Phyliss into a cynical survivor, especially in her big number, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."
There are iconic performances, referring to past theatrical legends, by a French chanteuse (Kathy St. George); a cynical, has- been movie star (Bobbie Steinbach); a woman in love with her life on Broadway (Jacqui Parker); and a red-hot mama (Kerry A. Dowling), portraits sketched only in outline, yet distinguished by a virtuoso solo apiece for each of these local divas. One only wishes the script gave them more time in the spotlight, rather than tossing off one-liners in addition to their songs.
Director Spiro Veloudos has the heart and chutzpah to shoe-horn this demanding production onto the small Lyric stage. He's assembled a team of the most gifted pros: Janie E. Howland for the nostalgic set, graced with a "Ziegfield" stair-case; Rafael Jaen for the period costumes; and Scott Clyve for a lighting design that emphasizes an evening tempered by shadows.
Ilyse Robbins, Veloudos's favorite choreographer, has outdone herself - watch for a wow of tap dancing in "Who's That Woman." As always at the Lyric, Sondheim's score is given impeccable treatment by the musical direction of Jonathan Goldberg.
Don't go to "Follies" expecting a happy ending. Sondheim doesn't believe in love-and-marriage, the staples of so-much of Broadway musical history. However, although this revival honors his work, it does not solve the problems of the disparate strands of show-biz history and multiple storylines that are never resolved.
Not to worry.
The Lyric and its gifted ensemble of both young and seasoned performers deliver where it counts for the composer's unforgettable score in all its glorious measures - pun intended.
Originally published by By IRIS FANGER, For The Patriot Ledger.
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