Sondheim’s “Follies” elegantly dramatizes showgirls’ bad choices

By Lucy Komisar

Eric Schaeffer’s moving, elegant production of Follies is dramatic proof of Steven Sondheim’s brilliance – the subtle combination of emotional focus and scintillating musical panache and wit. It is said best by the show’s name, Follies, which has a double meaning. It refers to the high-kicking vaudeville show the women danced in their youths and to their foolish decisions — and those of their men. The book is by James Goldman, who is perfectly attuned to Sondheim’s sensibility.


The lyrics sung by Ben Stone (Ron Raines), a former Washington politician who bet all on money success and now is unhappy with his life, is the heart of the play. In The Road You Didn’t Take, Ben, now 53, muses, as if to convince himself, that,

One’s life consists of either/or./
One has regrets/ Which one forgets,/
And as the years go on./ The road you didn’t take/ Hardly comes to mind, Does it?
It’s best to have no regrets.

And, At last you come to know:/
The roads you never take/ Go through rocky ground,/ Don’t they?/
The choices that you make/ Aren’t all that grim./
The worlds you never see/ Still will be around, Won’t they!

The stage is draped in gray cloth, almost funereal; so are walls of the theater where the audience sits. The theater where the Follies girls performed is about to come down, being replaced by a parking lot, and impresario Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin), who ran the Follies between the wars, from 1918 to 1941, has invited the past stars to a party. It’s now 1971, and none of their stars has shined as brightly as they did then. The women sealed their fates by marrying the men who were available. Most of them gave up their professional lives. Would different choices have made a difference?


Among the most unhappy is Sally Durand (Bernadette Peters), the wife of Buddy Plummer (Danny Burstein). Peters is always Peters, soaring beyond the character she plays. She and Buddy live in Phoenix, from where he travels to sell oil rigs and drills. He is crazy about her, but she is severely neurotic and has never gotten over being in love with Ben.

In the Follies days her roommate was Phyllis Rogers (Jan Maxwell), now svelte and elegant and married to Ben, for whom she attempted to shape and recreate herself. He is hardly appreciative, and she is cynical and just slightly bitter.

We see sweet nostalgic flashbacks, performed by younger versions of the four, of how it was when they met and courted. When the older couples meet up at the party, we see the flames of past hopes and discontents.

Everyone else has also made do. Mary Beth Peil as Solange a French performer who starred in 1926 is now 69 and markets perfume.


The girls are still great. Stella Deems (Terri White, with a stunning voice), leads a smashing number, Who’s that Woman, about how they appeared in the looking glass. Hattie Walker (Jane Howdyshell), now graying and rotund, sings Broadway Baby about her desire to appear on the Broadway stage. Carlotta (Elaine Paige), a brassy blonde with a fur stole, does a show-stopping rendition of I’m Still Here, about her time year after year moving through film, Las Vegas, and finally television. (I’ve gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,/ Gee, that was fun and a half./ When you’ve been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,/ Anything else is a laugh.


But though Sally, now 49, tries to pretend that she’s happy, because In Buddy’s Eyes, she’s still young and beautiful, she can’t forget Ben. And he is still putting her on, as he did then, in the wistful, powerful duet Too Many Mornings (that they have not been together). Raines has an excellent operative voice and Peters’ voice soars as they both build emotion in a highlight of the production.

Will the couples break apart? Phyllis (Maxwell) in irony of pain and boredom shown in her body language as well as her voice does acool and angry Could I Leave You?

Not to give those dinners for ten/ Elderly men/ From the U.N.–/ How could I survive?
Then, What would I do on my own?/ Putting thoughts of you aside/ In the south of France,/ Would I think of suicide?/ Darling, shall we dance?/
Could I live through the pain/ On a terrace in Spain?/ Would it pass? It would pass.
And Sweetheart, I have to confess:/ Could I leave you?/ Yes. Will I leave you?/ Will I leave you?/ Guess!

Maxwell, one of Broadway’s best stage actresses, is also a fine show dancer.


Buddy (Burstein) is piercing in the plaintive fantasy vaudeville he does about The Right Girl: She makes you feel like a million bucks/ Instead of-what? –like a rented tux.

Underneath all is indeed a feminist message that the women giving up their careers to get married was not a good choice for them — or their husbands.

OK, it’s not all brilliant. Ah Paree is trite. Solange sings:

New York has neon, Berlin has bars,/ But ah! Paree!
Shanghai has silk and Madrid guitars. But ah! Paree!
In Cairo you find bizarre bazaars./ In London pip! pip! you sip tea.
But when it comes to love./ None of the above/ Compares, compris?

But there’s still no one to match Sondheim for his sound and sophistication.

Follies. Book by James Goldman; music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; directed by Eric Schaeffer. Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway (entrance through Marriott hotel on 45th or 46th Street), New York City. 212-307-4100; . Opened Sept 12, 2011; closes Jan 22, 2012.


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