NEW YORK — For the Kennedy Center revival of “Follies,” a 1971 musical about a bittersweet showgirls' reunion on the eve of the demolition of their beloved old theatrical grind joint, the inside of Broadway's Marquis Theatre has been entirely covered in tattered dust cloths. It is a considerable improvement for this typically personality-free venue (ironically, the one Broadway theater that some aficionados would love to see torn down) and a reminder that great art and human decay are inextricably linked.
Better yet, it provides a setting for a direct-from-Washington production that — despite inviting occasional complaints — is now entirely and devastatingly in tune with this musical masterpiece's twin pulses of faint hope and bitter regret.
When the old showgirls and their atrophied beaus, their self-loathing Stage Door Johnnies, have all headed out the door and back to their retirements in Phoenix — or wherever their final restless resting place — Eric Schaeffer's production leaves you with the feelings that James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim surely intended. That would be bewilderment at how much of your limited time has passed and anger that whoever was supposed to be telling you that your ill-considered, on-the-fly choices would someday become cement shoes did not adequately do their job.
Opening around the anniversary of 9/11, and in an era when it feels like some old star names are fighting to keep their global billing, the macro themes of a show that opened in a very different America are also very much aflame. You get all that weight of history and, of course, some of the most heart-racing Sondheim music ever composed for an American musical: “Broadway Baby,” “Beautiful Girls,” “Could I Leave You?” “I'm Still Here.”
Schaeffer, whose early directing talent on road shows like “Big” has matured into something quite formidable, has achieved a great deal here. Not the least is the way the younger selves of the former showgirls are integrated into the action, often with the help of choreographer Warren Carlyle. Without the device ever seeming crass or manipulative, these sepia-toned lovelies of the pre-war years alternately flare up with the force of nostalgia and resilience — and, as the ever-intriguing Elaine Paige reminds us, “Follies” is about still being here just as much as wondering what happened — then recede whenever loss and regret overwhelms. It is a very poignant visual treatment and it gives way to a gorgeous second-act “Loveland” sequence (designer Derek McLane fills the stage with a plush look that suggests both a womb and a fatal web). The sequence is as caustic as it is beautiful.
Jan Maxwell, who plays the feisty Phyllis, is the clear star of the proceedings, her lanky, elegant, glamorous frame fighting back time, even as the character refuses to lose her cool. Bernadette Peters, who plays the openly needy Sally, is a less obvious piece of casting. At this juncture (I did not see the show in Washington), Peters has dialed back her star persona to the point where you have to lean forward in your seat to see the showgirl that was once was. But you do see the vulnerable Phoenix hausfrau, and the lost youngster who came before, as clear as twin lonely cactus in an ever-arid desert. Her omnivorous treatment of “Losing My Mind” probably won't be for all tastes, but it succeeds where it counts the most: the expression of the quotidian difficulty of holding it together.
No “Follies” can be all malaise. And Schaeffer now has the joyous Jayne Houdyshell — an actress who is ideal for Hattie precisely because her approach to introspection is so different from her peers — to play with “Broadway Baby” like it's an Everlasting Gobstopper with years of flavor. Equally fine is Rosalind Elias, whose Heidi never quite lets you in, as appealing as her “One More Kiss” surely feels.
As “Follies” productions go, this one ends up foregrounding the male malaise to a striking degree. Perhaps too much. That's partly a consequence of rich performances from Danny Burstein (who plays Buddy) and Ron Raines (as Benjamin). Both these actors smolder with a toxic mix of regret, achievement, arrogance and oblivious that so often afflicts the middle-aged male. Relieved of the pressuring need to serve all masters with the show's most iconic and familiar numbers, Raines and Burstein are free to concentrate on their characters' trajectories. But this take-away also seems to flow from where the directorial focus has landed.
The hardest part of “Follies,” now at least, is making us believe that the actual live-changing revelations and life-and-love decisions being made at the reunion — for some an excuse to wallow, for others a call to action — are happening, credibly, in real time, even as the pastiches of the past and present are unfolding . It's here that Schaeffer and Carlyle have the most trouble; whenever the show is enveloped in an individual number, it is invariably riveting. But whenever the present snaps back, there is a creeping and pervasive uncertainty about how to proceed.
It is bothersome, but it certainly does not torpedo the show, which is strong in every other area that matters. A decision was clearly made here to stage the piece as if you were are seeing mostly a collection of individual moments, as if you are staring at the reunion from the side or through a half-open door. You're never sure where the past separates from the present or even when the actual event starts and ends. Which is, of course, one of life's true follies.
“Follies” plays at the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway; contact 877-250-2929 or folliesbroadway.com. Later this fall, Chicago Shakespeare Theater opens a separate production of “Follies,” directed by Gary Griffin.
Copyright © 2015, RedEye