FOLLIES: The Lyric fields a heroic revival of Sondheim’s legendary 1971 musical.
A pretty girl is less like a melody than like yesterday’s news in Follies, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award–winning 1971 musical that lost money but became the stuff of legend. An amalgam of showmanship, nostalgia, and nostalgia for a certain kind of showmanship, the show is set in a faded New York theater about to be razed for a parking lot. The original production was inspired, in part, by a photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of what had been the Roxy Theatre. And the musical about former showgirls reuning at the scene of their one-time “follies” — both Ziegfeldian and romantic — features a fair share of emotional wreckage as well, the rubble of the heart raked by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim into a dizzying, dissonant swirl of moxy, heartache, and homage. There is no actual debris on stage at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, which fields a heroic revival (through October 11). But the sense of lives lived amid the grit of regret is very much present.
The seeds of this full if compacted production were sown in Overture Productions’ impressive 2003 concert staging of Follies at John Hancock Hall. Lyric honcho Spiro Veloudos, who directed that outing, is once more at the helm, with many of Boston’s no-longer-ingénue divas reprising their roles. And replacing Tony winner Len Cariou, who phoned in his performance, is Larry Daggett, who comes to the role of successful but scathingly dissatisfied Ben Stone with a string of Broadway credits and a powerhouse baritone that, paired with Leigh Barrett’s soprano deployed in its lush upper register on “Too Many Mornings,” brings the house down along with the first-act curtain.
Follies has its fanatical devotees as well as its detractors. Given the glorious pungency of the score, it’s hard to imagine being among the latter. But the metaphor and the atmosphere of the show, which shadows its aging returnees with hue-less ghosts of their younger selves, outshine James Goldman’s book, whose central storyline is mired in romantic cliché. It focuses on two couples that married wrong on the cusp of World War II, their illusions rekindled and disappointments deepened by this return 30 years later to the scene of the crime. Young lawyer Stone was involved with Sally Durant but married her roommate, Phyllis Rogers. On the rebound, Sally married Buddy Plummer, the salesman who adored her. Thrown back together amid the once hopeful and freewheeling friends of their youth, these four uncork regret and vituperation along with too much champagne. Their feelings explode in the brilliant final sequence: a “Loveland”-set vaudeville in which pert 1940s-esque numbers by their younger selves are followed by ghoulish, sassy, or heartbreaking turns by the principals. But much of what comes out of their mouths that is not song sounds like As the World Turns circa 1970.
At the Lyric, musical director Jonathan Goldberg helms an able 11-piece orchestra tucked behind a tattered curtain above the stage while Veloudos fields a cast of 27, the oldsters clad by Rafael Jaen in finery that suggests 1971 was not a fashion zenith, their younger selves wafting in black, white, and gray get-ups that run the gamut from streetwear to showgirl to Edwardian. And though the chief threat of most cast members is not dancing, they make it spryly through Ilyse Robbins’s choreography, particularly in “Who’s That Woman?”, a rejuvenated follies number sung and tapped by the show’s seven reunited chorines and their youthful doppelgänger.
In this musical of many opportunities, there are of course memorable individual turns. Barrett offers a more subdued but also a more painful rendering of Sally’s “Losing My Mind” than she did in 2003. Maryann Zschau brings a silky viciousness to poised but hurting Phyllis’s “Could I Leave You?” And Peter A. Carey is terrific as the adoring if unfaithful Buddy, imbuing “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” with a savage, almost maniacal flair. Among the supporting divas: Kathy St. George melds Maurice Chevalier and Coco Chanel for “Ah, Paris!”, Jacqui Parker makes a regal “Broadway Baby,” Kerry Dowling sings an ebullient lead on “Who’s That Woman?”, and Bobbie Steinbach brings a sturdy languor to that show-biz survivalist’s anthem, “I’m Still Here,” half of it delivered without standing up.
Lucy Ricardo meets Emma Goldman in We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!, Italian writer/performer Dario Fo’s anarchic 1974 farce spurred by anarchy in the supermarket, where a horde of desperate housewives declare a five-finger-discount to liberate a load of groceries. We catch up with one of them, Antonia, as she and a friend try to hide the pilfered pasta not just from the cops but also from Antonia’s domineering and law-abiding if capitalistically beaten-down spouse, Giovanni. Some of this politically charged romp by the only clown ever awarded the Nobel Prize for literature is inspired, some of it is clunky, and every once in a while Karl Marx seems to have fallen into the Duck Soup. But the revival by Nora Theatre Company (through September 28), a housewarming for Nora’s new digs at Central Square Theater, is so lively that even some technical glitches at a preview performance became part of the fun.