We gave it a B+
Great roles for women of a certain age are rare in theater — less rare than in film or TV — but rare, nonetheless. So a show that features a parade of Broadway babes in their late 40s to early 60s is something to treasure. And Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies, now playing at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre through June 9 following a successful Broadway revival last fall, has always been a vehicle to showcase strong women.
Director Eric Shaeffer has retained most of his Broadway cast in L.A — including Tony nominees Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, and Ron Raines — though Victoria Clark steps in for Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant. Sally and Maxwell’s Phyllis are retired ex-showgirls from the vaudeville-era Weissman Follies who return for a 30th reunion before their old theater is razed to make way for a parking lot. With the show’s incredible cast of pros, there isn’t a misplaced dance step or an off-key note. But Follies is far from a perfect show, and it’s flawed in the same way that so many Sondheim shows are flawed: It’s about a half hour too long, the drama doesn’t kick in until the second act, and you don’t find yourself humming many of the tunes as you walk out of the theater.
Sondheim has said he was inspired by a New York Times feature about a former Ziegfeld girl, and the thinness of that premise shows through. It’s a one-gag story with a meta theme — what do older actresses do when their time has passed? The performers are in on the joke, which makes the cast even more enjoyable to watch. That’s particularly true of Mary Beth Peil (The Good Wife) as ooh la la French songstress Solange LaFitte and Elaine Paige as Carlotta Campion, decked out in a sparkly blue number with a fur stole, draped by young, strapping men. Paige’s sassy rendition of ”I’m Still Here” is one of the more memorable moments in the show.
The first act is truly an ensemble piece, as each aging showgirl gets her own number in a medley that includes the celebrated ”Broadway Baby,” spiritedly sung by Jane Houdyshell as Hattie. Each showgirl appears dressed in her own style, accompanied by a younger version of herself decked out in full Vegas-eque garb. Some of the youthful chorus members look as if they stepped out of Circus Circus, but they’re mainly used as scenery for the first act.
In the sharper second act, the story narrows to focus on two unhappy couples, Clark’s Sally Durant and her husband, Buddy (Burstein), and Phyllis (Maxwell) and her husband, Ben (Raines). Sondheim has a knack for telling real stories rather than saccharin love fantasies, though the approach seems less innovative now than it did in 1971. I’ve been a huge fan of Clark since seeing her in the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Matthew Broderick, and her powerful voice and depth comes through loud and clear, from her lighthearted dance numbers to her breakdown in the moving solo ”Losing My Mind.” Maxwell has a less introspective but equally powerful moment in ”Could I Leave You.” Follies is a pitch-perfect production of an imperfect show, but it offers a unique opportunity for Angelenos to see some of the most talented women of the Great White Way. B+