Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Regrets, They Have a Few

The curtain rises. A ramshackle facility: crumbling columns, dingy brickwork, and piles of discarded chairs, onto which enter a multitude of brightly colored, ethereally lit Vaudevillian shades, clad in giant headpieces, scandalist skin-tight garments, and other ornate regalia. Normally their appearance would suggest exuberance and emotional buoyancy. But in these digs, and in the ghostly silence in which these apparitions make their circuits round the stage, the effect is fittingly funereal, for the show in which they appear in, the Kennedy Center's lavish, $6 million production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, is melancholy at its heart.

Its characters, old-time performers of the Weismann Follies gathering in their old theater one last time before it's torn down, are similarly worn and faded: Buddy, bored with his marriage even though he still loves his wife Sally. She still carries a torch for Ben Stone, who true to his name is hard-hearted, caring little for the women he woos, including his wife Phyllis, jaded by her husband's indecency.

Not content to revisit their old showtunes, they reconsider their lives, including their marriages. Sally, played with a touching vulnerability by Bernadette Peters, is perhaps the most dissatisfied of the lot. Who but the most wounded soul would sing one of the most gorgeous tributes to love that she probably doesn't actually believe herself?

In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes
I can't get older.
I'm still the princess,
Still the prize.
In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's arms,
On Buddy's shoulder
I won't get older.
Nothing dies.
And all I ever dreamed I'd be,
The best I ever thought of me,
Is every minute there to see
In Buddy's eyes.

The feeling of the show is best encapsulated in Ben's "The Road You Didn't Take:"

You take one road,
You try one door,
There isn't time for any more.
One's life consists of either/or.
One has regrets
Which one forgets,
And as the years go on.

The show flashes and dazzles, of course. This is a Broadway musical, about musical performers no less, and the conceit of having them relive their old routines makes for some stunning set-pieces, particularly the show-stopping "Who's That Woman?" in which the aging ladies of the cast tap-dance and twirl about the set like (and with!) their twenty year-old selves, within a shimmering silver curtain descending from the wings.

Most if not all of the material with the secondary characters is admittedly ancillary to the Phyllis-Ben-Sally-Buddy plot, a reiteration of the main story's ideas of nostalgia and regret, but it gives the show some much-needed kick, some honey with the medicine. The black joke is, of course, that the youthful energy of those scenes of the past are tempered with awareness of the present day's unsexiness.

Sondheim knows this, which leads to his ballsiest gambit, the spectacularly staged Loveland medley that takes up most of the play's second act. With the four main characters having all reached a moment of crisis, they translate their personal follies into the Follies of the type they once performed, with each character getting a song based on a different kind of routine (it's the same concept as Chicago, but driven by sadness and regret instead of hard-bitten cynicism).

This is probably the make-or-break point for most audience members, as it becomes most clear that the story, tender and affecting as it is, is a skeletal thing on which to hang its musical numbers. This would sink a lesser dramatist, but Sondheim is the crowned master of the craft. He knows what he's doing. Lines like

Now Lucy has the purity
Along with the unsurety
That comes with being only twenty-one.
Jessie has maturity
And plenty of security.
Whatever you can do with them she's done.

are so witty and attached to music so great, it would be churlish to complain of narrative irrelevance. It's actually the point, in a meta-theatrical way: the play is a follies show about follies, of many types, so the plot is almost secondary by design. It's executed with such aplomb that when the final actors, the final Vaudeville spirit, leave the stage, the characters's sadness, from which they only begin to move on, carries to the audience: for we, too, are a little sad to see it end.

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