Follies and Merrily We Roll Along are probably my two favorite musicals to see in a theater, so it was terrific to have a chance to see the Arlington Players version of Follies Friday night.
For those who don’t know the piece, the show takes place in the early 70’s in the about-to-be-torn-down theater of the Weisman Follies, at a reunion of performer from the Weisman Follies – popular in the inter-war period. The action of the show focuses on two couples returning to the party. The women were chorus girls in the Follies; the men were stage-door-Johnnies.
The drama of the life of these two couples plays against the backdrop of colorful characters at the reunion. It also gives Sondheim the opportunity to present both searing character songs such as In Buddy’s Eyes and Too Many Mornings and pastiche numbers such as Broadway Baby and I’m Still Here. In a riveting coup de theatre at the end, the character and pastiche numbers combine — the show becomes a “Follies” with each main character having a “numbo” summing up their situation. Oh yeah, inevitably ghosts of all the former selves haunt the theater and the show.
The Arlington Players version of this complex piece has much to recommend it. There are a bunch of terrific performances on stage. Lynn Audrey Neal gives Phyllis, the acerbic self-made chorus girl turned political wife, a special sense of humor and vulnerability under her toughness, and seems incapable of setting a foot or note wrong on stage. Jack Stein does a great job of portraying Buddy as a loser without crossing the line into “pathetic loser” (all to easy for the role). Deborah Davidson, Liz Weber, and Barbara Parker have great moments respectively belting out those Sondheim gems Broadway Baby, Who’s That Woman, and I’m Still Here. And there’s a lot of talent in the smaller roles: the actors playing the younger ghosts of the principals (Alison Block, Jennifer Diffel, Bill Walker, Juan Rodriguez) are superb; and Ashley Edmiston and Karen Toth shine in cameo moments.
The production is visually handsome, and the transformations in and out of the critical Loveland scenes are well handled. The show requires a lot of costumes and they generally look terrific, although Ben’s suit seemed strangely ill-fitted and Phyllis’s gown desperately needed ironing.
In the costume land, this was the first production of Follies I’ve ever seen that avoided one of my pet costume peeves for the show. In Who’s That Woman, the number is obviously structured as star with chorus backup. This is the first production of the show I’ve seen that had the sense to put the Stella ghost character in a “star” costume rather than dress her like the rest of the ghost chorus! Hurray!
Director Christopher Dykton also brought fascinating solutions to two other moments in the show. Interestingly, he has the Vincent and Vanessa dance number start in the middle of social dancing at the party. Also, he stages The Story of Lucy and Jessie with two chorus girls flanking Phyllis, making it beyond a doubt to the audience that when Phyllis is singing about “Lucy” and “Jessie” she is singing about young and present Phyllis; I can’t tell you the number of people (many of whom were self-described) who have insisted to me that “Lucy” and “Jessie” represent Sally and Phyllis.
The biggest problem with a community theater production of Follies is that the vehicle was written for “stars.” By that, I mean performers with whom the audience has a pre-existing relationship. The original production of the show in 1971 featured glamorous vintage film stars such as Alexis Smith and Yvonne DeCarlo, Dorothy Collins who was a mainstay on Your Hit Parade, and even Ethel Shutta, a veteran of the Ziegfield Follies. Subsequent commercial version have trotted out the likes of Ann Miller, Eartha Kitt, and JoAnne Worley. The first ten minutes of the show are structured to give the audience a chance to be introduced to the stars not once, but twice. Similarly, the four principals in the show behave so callously onstage, that without doses of personal goodwill for the performers, it is easy for the audience to be alienated by the characters’ actions. So without a pre-established personal connection to much of the cast, the first bit of the show seemed a little draggy, and though the other roles were wonderfully sung and acted, it was hard for me to feel any sympathy for the principals other than Phyllis.
But the great part of Follies is that the show is so complex, that it defies the perfect production. Yet it has so much great material, such sweep and grandeur that any production gives a lot to enjoy. And the Arlington Players score in many key aspects.
By the way, for those of you looking for a great read, Everything Was Possible, a backstage look a the original production of Follies, is one of the most entertaining theater books I’ve ever read.