Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Haunted Heartache

Upon entering the Ahmanson Theatre this past week, regulars like myself were initially startled to find the space in a state of apparent disrepair. The walls, speakers and seating boxes were covered with black tarps, and the curtain partly covering the proscenium was torn and frayed. What's more, a howling wind could be intermittently heard and the smell of mildew hung in the air. I felt I had walked into the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland rather than LA's premiere theatrical venue.

The occasion for this intentional display of decay was opening night of the first post-New York staging of last year's acclaimed, Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim's and James Goldman's 1971 musical, Follies. Their work has been performed rarely in the last 30 years due to the mixed reception it received upon its debut, it's unusually large (by today's standards) cast and orchestra, and the requisite multi-million dollar budget that naturally accompanies these amenities. Despite such extravagance, the original production was Sondheim's second significant attempt (after Company) to deconstruct and downsize the Broadway musical, which the composer later achieved par excellence via such shows as A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion.


As if the dilapidated scenery wasn't enough (the current production is magnificently designed by Derek McLane, costumer Gregg Barnes and lighting designer Natasha Katz), the stage and levels above it fill with the seeming ghosts of showgirls past during the orchestral prologue. These bedazzled wraiths are gradually revealed to be the younger incarnations of the now-aged chorines who serve as Follies' central characters, and they hover eerily throughout the performance and even during intermission.

Sally (Tony-winner Victoria Clark who, as a replacement for Bernadette Peters, is the only leading non-member of the revival's New York cast), Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), Carlotta (British stage legend Elaine Paige) and their cohorts all performed during the 1930's-40's in the since-defunct Weismann Follies. They have reunited thirty years later in their former theatre on the eve of its demolition, many with their husbands or lovers in tow. It quickly becomes apparent that Sally and Phyllis have lingering issues with the men they met during their follies run and eventually married: Buddy and Ben (played, respectively, by Tony nominees Danny Burstein and Ron Raines). Said issues come to a head during their reunion in now-typical, truth-telling Sondheim style.


The score of Follies includes several songs that serve today as standards, notably "I'm Still Here" (performed delectably by Paige), "Losing My Mind," "Broadway Baby" and "Too Many Mornings." I was therefore shocked to overhear the two older gentlemen in front of me in the restroom line during intermission agree that "the music is great but this show doesn't have any memorable songs"! Other gems are "Ah, Paris!," "The Road You Didn't Take," "In Buddy's Eyes," the showstopping "Who's That Woman" (featuring lead singer Terri White, who still has the energy and verve she displayed in 1980 as Joice Heth in Broadway's Barnum), "Live, Laugh, Love" and the haunting (and spectacularly sung) "One More Kiss."

Between scenes and acts, I found myself reflecting as much on my own life choices these past 30 years as the show's characters do, which may well be the ultimate intent of Sondheim and book author Goldman. Much credit also has to be given director Eric Schaefer (Million Dollar Quartet, The Witches of Eastwick), who along with his amazing cast has breathed new, 21st century-relevant life into what could have been in lesser hands a drab, dusty chestnut.

Follies plays at the Ahmanson through June 9th. It is superb and absolutely, positively should not be missed by anyone who cares about theatre, love or life.

Reverend's Rating: A

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. I saw it in NYC, and you can't imagine how great it was seeing the Midwest Civic Center-like Marriott Marquis Theatre turned into a crumbling classic showplace. I also LOVED that "I'm Still Here" is presented as TV star Carlotta regaling a bunch of gay cater-waiter fans with her stories...Priceless all the way through, plus I was seated next to Bartlett Sher...

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