Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Looking Back

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Looking Back

Article excerpt

City Center Follies lovingly, lavishly recreated an era

Early in Follies, Heidi Schiller reminisces about the day when Franz Lehar wrote a song for her. Then she questions her own memory, "Or was it Oscar Straus? Facts never interest me. What matters is the song." That last sentiment might serve as a motto for New York City Center's Encores!, a series devoted to presenting concert versions of rarely heard works by major American composers. Certainly the Encores! production of Follies (February 8-12, 2007) reminded audiences yet again how beguiling and compelling the songs in this score are. In the 16th century, playgoers would speak of going to "hear" a play, rather than "see" one. This City Center series invites modern audiences to experience and appreciate musical theatre with a similar focus.

In many ways, a concert setting of this particular musical is happily unavoidable. Follies is about musicals; it is about how those songs shape our view of love and romance and the possibilities of life. To borrow words from another songwriter, Follies reveals how music can "bewitch, bother and bewilder" us. Placing the orchestra center stage, this production prompted audiences to recognize that music not only moves these characters and moves their stories forward, but also serves as is a metaphor for the hopes and dreams that failed so many of them. What matters is the song.

And the songs were impeccably performed in this production. The 30-member Encores! orchestra restored to Follies a sound that one usually hears only on recordings. Under conductor Eric Stern, the orchestra shifted gracefully from the lush, Satie-like opening to the flashy pastiche numbers. These musicians delivered both the most robust musical moments in the show (e.g., "Loveland," with its large chorus and flamboyant arrangements) and its quietest musical nuances (e.g., the closing plaintive sounds of "Too Many Mornings"). To call this orchestra's performance "an accompaniment" would be a disservice.

This production confirmed that nearly every song in Follies has become a showstopper - especially when the east is as star-studded as this one. Victor Garber's performance seamlessly peeled away the poise and self-assurance in Ben, to arrive at the raw insecurities that emerged in his final song. Michael McGrath (Buddy) balanced a manic energy in numbers like "The Right Girl" and "Buddy's Blues" with moments of tenderness that made it believable that Sally ever would have married him.

For those who remember Donna Murphy as Fosca in Passion, her portrayal of Phyllis demonstrated her extraordinary versatility as both actress and singer. Here she projected a fierce coolness that cracked open at the conclusion of "Could I Leave You?", unleashing the collective turmoil that followed. Victoria Clark brought the perfect blend of warmth and sadness, hopefulness and vulnerability, to Sally. Her performances of "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" captured the fragility of her dreams as well as their compelling glamour.

Of course, Follies is famous for its secondary roles, especially when played by people who are themselves part of the rich theatrical history that this play evokes. While only Carlotta sings "I'm Still Here," a goodly number of the rest of the cast embodied that defiant statement merely with their presence on stage. And while Weismann might predict that his guests will "stumble through a song or two," this cast consistently proved him inaccurate. …

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