Ghosts and memories haunt Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, arguably the most emotionally resonant musical in the Broadway canon and the latest in a lengthening string of triumphs for Signature Theatre director Eric Schaeffer. This smartly intimate revival of a show that has always seemed to demand spectacle is ravishing in nearly every respectfrom lavish costuming to showstopping star turns to an in-character, bleary-eyed, full-cast curtain call that’s nearly as wrenching as the story arc that precedes it.
Moreover, the director’s canny casting ensures that the emotional impact of this Follies on its audience has as much to do with memories of previous Signature musicals as it does with the tug of the story conceived by Sondheim, librettist James Goldman, and original director Harold Prince. It’s not only the ghosts of erstwhile Follies girls who haunt the stage; the ghosts of erstwhile Mrs. Lovetts, Mama Roses, and Dots are here, too, along with the variously vibrant protagonists of Wings, The Rhythm Club, Grand Hotel, and a host of other Signature hits.
Paring Broadway musicals down to their essenceand playing them with showbiz savvy but without the extravagance generally used to wow the back row in touring-house barnshas become Schaeffer’s artistic signature at Signature. His productionswringing advantage from the company’s not-for-profit economics and limited seating capacityboast full orchestras but no microphones, a combination that returns musical theater to a warm, natural sound not widely heard from stages since the Gershwins held sway. The sound allows for nuance where brassiness has reigned unchallenged for decadeswith lines inflected rather than punched, lyrics whispered when whispering is what’s called for.
What that means for Follies, a show that chronicles an all-night 30-years-later reunion of retired Follies entertainers and was originally a moody, carefully calibrated blend of glamour and decay, is that the calibration can again be fine. Over the years, the show has tended to be revived as if it were little more than a showcase for middle-aged stars and period costumes. At Signature, it is again the dramatic whole I remember from 1971, a sort of anti-Chorus Line, in which all those cute chorus kids who made the cut have aged into sadalbeit spryshowbiz has-beens, acknowledging wasted lives and faded dreams.
They arrive for the reunion to find their old theater a rubble of charred wood, rusting girders, and rotting curtaina ruin that extends to Signature’s rafters and corners, and all the way out into the lobby in Lou Stancari’s inventively run-down design scheme. What we seeand what the aging chorus kids only senseis that this soon-to-be-demolished showplace is populated by sequined apparitions of the long-stemmed beauties they once were. Glamorous in tattered gowns, these ghosts drift through the decay, languidly mimicking the movements of their latter-day selves, and, as the show progresses, occasionally even hitting the notes their latter-day selves can no longer manage.
It’s the juxtaposition of youthful bounce and middle-aged vigor that gives the show its kicka device made explosively explicit in “Who’s That Woman,” a mirror song that finds a gaggle of gals relying on muscle memory to stumble through a half-remembered routine, as their younger selves kick high in the original number. These folks don’t have one foot in the grave, exactlythey’re vibrant and livelybut they’ve hardened into jaded, worldly creatures, not unlike the ones who move backward through time in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.
Here, the time travel is all in the heads of the show’s central foursome. Manhattan socialite Phyllis (Judy McLane) and Midwest hausfrau Sally (Florence Lacey), roommates back in their Follies days, were paired off with Ben (Joseph Dellger) and Buddy (Harry A. Winter), stage-door Lotharios who romanced them after the curtain fell each night. Sally, alas, still carries a torch for the guy she didn’t wed, and when she sees how miserable Ben is with Phyllis, she fantasizes that he’ll fall back into her arms so they can have the happy ending of which she’s long dreamed. In a haunting moment in the regret-filled ballad “Too Many Mornings,” Schaeffer has the older and younger Sallys trade places in the arms of the older and younger Bens, and for an instant, you can see the mental image each still carries of the other. Then they switch places again, and the ache is palpable. The same applies to the others, and in the second act, their present and past selves merge in a surreal Follies show in which the musical sequences (“Ben’s Folly,” “Sally’s Folly,” and so on) offer sardonic commentary on the mess they’ve made of their lives.
Sondheim’s score, with its echoes of earlier eras and its stunning torch songs, most of which have become staples on the cabaret circuit, is legendary now, and it’s handled by a cast with perfect pitch, both musically and psychologically. As is his habit, Schaeffer concentrates at least as much on the emotional underpinnings of the story as on the showier aspects of performance, and getting the basics right makes all the difference in this showbizzy saga. Lacey is a revelation as Sally, desperately vulnerable and achingly naive about the womanizing heel she loves and the forced-into-womanizing husband she doesn’t. Winter both makes Buddy’s frustration palpable and handles his vaudeville numbers with clownish aplomb, Dellger gets the pain of Ben’s self-recognition just right, and McLane etches Phyllis’ anger in acid, particularly in a knockout rendering of “How Could I Leave You.” Their younger selves are neat fits for themSean MacLaughlin’s callow, ambitious Ben, A.K. Brink’s starry-eyed Phyllis, Will Gartshore’s earnest Buddy, and especially the sweet, stable Young Sally of Tracy Lynn Olivera, whose ultimate meltdown is perhaps the most painful in a show that spreads pain pretty evenly.
But this is an evening in which even minor charactersand there are a lot of them in a stage- and auditorium-filling cast of 35make a big impact. Donna Migliaccio, having earned a territorial right to the song “I’m Still Here,” by playing leads in everything from Signature’s Sweeney Todd to the troupe’s Gypsy, makes a marvelous midstanza transition from funny to fierce as she belts it to rafters that hover just a few feet above her head. Dana Krueger, who played the stroke-addled heroine of Wings a few years ago, brings a crusty fragility to the show’s oldest Follies girl, a Jenny Lind type who once chirped operetta ditties and now can only harmonize with her higher-hitting ghost. The others are no less terrific, but space limitations dictate that I should let you discover them for yourself.
Technical contributions are stellar all around, from Stancari’s magnificent wreck of a set to Chris Lee’s moody shadows (he creates nice effects with everything from flashlights to spotlights) to the genuinely spectacular costumes by Robert Perdziola, whose winged butterfly and fan outfits for the big Follies “Loveland” sequence are justifiably applause-garnering, and whose gowns for the former Follies girls frequently tell as much about them as their lines do. Jon Kalbfleisch’s 14-piece orchestra (the same size as the one for the recent Broadway revival) sounds especially full-bodied in the tight confines of Signature, and almost symphonic in the show’s climactic moments.
A personal note, if I may: In 1971, when I saw Follies on Broadway as a budding college critic, I was 22 and naturally identified with the youngsters in the show. The starsAlexis Smith, Yvonne De Carlo, and othersseemed ancient to me then. So it’s startling in this version to hear the older characters admit to beinghorror of horrorsabout my current age. Follies is now as distant from its first production as the characters are from the ’30s and ’40s shows they’re reminiscing about. And as I write this review, Sondheim and Prince, both now in their 70s, are holding a press conference at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre for their latest show, Bounce, which has been gestating for more than a decade. In that same decade, Schaeffer has produced nearly all the shows that give this Follies its resonance for Signature’s audience. He’s also overseen the Sondheim Celebration at the Eisenhower Theaterthe very spot where Bounce will play this fall.
Ghosts and memories everywhere you look. You’d be wise to attend to them while you can. CP