This must be the season of Sondheim. "Assassins"
just opened at Studio 54. "Merrily We Roll Along" is
at the Gallery Players. And a week into their run, "Follies"
opens at another Brooklyn venue, the Heights Players.
What makes this especially amazing is that Sondheim stands out as one of the most dense and difficult writers of musicals to come along in the last quarter century. His plots often take unexpected journeys. His plays seldom have happy or uplifting endings. His songs have erudite lyrics and melodies that are infrequently melodic and often unmemorable.
Tom Tyler has ambitiously and courageously chosen to direct the Heights Players’ extravagant production; there are over three dozen in the cast. Although there are some nice moments in the play, one cannot help but wish Tyler had limited his ambition to his resources. It’s obvious that everyone associated with "Follies" is trying really hard, but watching it unfold reminds one painfully of a 6-year-old trying to get to the cookies in a jar on a shelf she can’t reach.
Set in the about-to-be-demolished theater where the Weissman girls have been reunited for the first and last time by their former boss, the impresario Dimitri Weissman (John Bourne), "Follies" juxtaposes past and present, fantasy and reality, and hope and despair. Although there are many vignettes that provide glimpses of what has become of the other girls, the play focuses on two unhappy wives, Phyllis (Judith Meehan) and Sally (Betsy Marra).
Phyllis is unhappy because her husband, Benjamin Stone (Tom Levy), is successful and cold as a well stone. Sally is unhappy because her husband, Buddy Plummer (Steven Bergquist), is unsuccessful and unfaithful, and anyway, she’s really always loved Ben, who rejected her years ago and will reject her again.
There are many times I wished "Follies" were a simpler, leaner show. But without all the trimmings, the plot would be revealed as not only thin, but also incomplete. Why the heck did Ben marry Phyllis in the first place?
Meehan is powerful and poignant. Her anger is sexy and her defiance makes her desirable. Marra, with her frizzy hair and harebrained chatter, is foolish and vulnerable. Together they form a tableau of what no woman wants to become.
Unfortunately, Levy and Bergquist are no match for their mates. It’s hard to imagine why the characters were married in the play or the actors were cast for the production.
But the biggest problem with "Follies" is the music. Sondheim, who started his career as a lyricist ("West Side Story" in 1957 and "Gypsy" in 1958) and as a protege of Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote consistently brilliant lyrics but is an uneven composer. "Follies" has a lot of music but only a few songs that really stand out, like "Broadway Baby," "In Buddy’s Eyes" and "I’m Still Here."
Vivienne La Barbera, as Hattie Walker, belts out "Broadway Baby" like a Bette Midler in Brooklyn. But Marra, who has a sweet voice, does not have the range for "In Buddy’s Eyes." And Susan Faye Groberg, as Carlotta Campion, who is excellent with the spoken word, doesn’t have the oomph to belt out "I’m Still Here" the way she needs to.
If "Follies" lacks energy, this is due in no small part to the number of people who weigh down the Heights Players’ small stage. There are times it seems more like watching Times Square during rush hour rather than a dance number on stage. The phrase "less means more" was never more applicable.
In 1971, "Follies" opened to mixed reviews despite the many celebrities director Harold Prince brought back to the stage - Yvonne DeCarlo, Mary McCarty, Ethel Shutta - and the statuesque showgirls who wandered around the stage as ghosts of time gone by. It ran for 522 performances. In 1998, Paper Mill Playhouse mounted a highly acclaimed production, and in 2001, the show was brought back to Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre. This time it ran for only 117 performances.
By "Fiddler on the Roof" or "Hello Dolly" standards, Sondheim’s musicals are not exactly mega-hits, but his work has often garnered both awards and praise from the critics; "Follies" won the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical in 1971.
Even in the hands of professionals, "Follies" is a challenge, which may be why it’s not exactly a stock show. Doing it well would certainly be a triumph. One suspects the Heights Players wanted to end the season with a hit. Unfortunately, it was a miss.
The Heights Players production of "Follies" runs through May 23, at 26 Willow Place near State Street in Brooklyn Heights. Tickets are $15. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.