So last night I saw the new, utterly transcendent revival of Follies, which I kept hearing was the best production of this brilliant postmodern musical since the original in 1971.
And I think they may be right.
It was my third Follies, having seen the show on Broadway in 2001 and in London in 2002, and though the other two were very good, this one leaves the others in the dust.
The cast is uniformly amazing, the production design is gorgeous, and the direction is excellent. My only real complaint is that they stuck an intermission into it. Once more, friends -- if a show is written without an intermission, it's structured very differently from a two-act show, so just cramming an intermission into the middle of a one-act show (which people do to Pippin, Man of La Mancha, Assassins, and other shows) doesn't make it a two-act show.
But letting that go for the moment...
Not only were the four leads outstanding, but every one of the secondary leads, most of whom get one song and a smattering of lines, were also wonderful. Among those secondary leads were Broadway veterans like Elaine Page, Teri White, Don Correia, Susan Watson, Florence Lacey, and others.
And then there are those four leads. Ron Raines as Ben was really good, and yet he was the weakest of the four. I'd never seen Jan Maxwell (Phyllis) before but she's a remarkable actor and she made a lot of choices I've never seen from Phyllis before. As an example, as much as I loved Alexis Smith's bitterly cold "Could I Leave You?", Maxwell plays the song as a rage-filled breakdown, almost a mad scene, and it really works!
Danny Burstein (most recently seen in a brilliant performance as Luther Billis in the South Pacific revival) is Buddy, and I've never seen anyone do it better -- such sadness, such heart, such love, such rage, such conflict crippling him and ripping him apart inside. It's a brilliant, thrilling performance, exactly the way Buddy should be approached, so honest, so flawed, so human...
And then there's Bernadette. As much as I love her, I don't always love her acting, but here Bernadette the Broadway Star utterly disappears in the fragile, damaged, profoundly depressed Sally. It's by far the best work I've ever seen her do. Her performance is so raw and honest it's almost painful to watch her. She and Burstein are incredibly believable as this fucked-up couple, married thirty years, who should have never been married to begin with. And it's not just honest, it's really subtle and detailed.
And because the acting was so outstanding, the characters so complex and nuanced, the last third of the show -- the fantasy Follies numbers -- had more resonance than I've ever seen before. And in all four cases, at the end of each song, the sadness, the loneliness creeps back in.
I think this is the darkest production I've seen of the show, but also the most honest. After all, this is about the pain and regret of middle-age. Stressing the considerable amount of pure entertainment over the acting lets both the characters and the audience off the hook. Director Eric Schaeffer wasn't about to let that happen this time.
It's truly one of the most emotional, most powerful productions I've ever seen on stage, and I got choked up any number of times. I'm so glad I finally got to see Follies done absolutely perfectly. Not a flaw to be found.
Oh yeah, did I mention the twenty-eight piece orchestra? How often do you ever get to hear that live?
All in all, a magnificent evening with a true masterpiece of the theatre. It makes me want to produce and direct this show more than ever -- and all we need is an old proscenium house, a full orchestra, a huge cast, and a huge set and costume budget. That's all...
C'mon, who's gonna write me a check to cover all that...?
Long Live the Musical!
P.S. See also my thoughts on Lysistrata Jones, Bonnie & Clyde, The Blue Flower, and Rent.