Losing my mind

I’d say Bernadette Peters’ greatest gift is getting me to love a song I’ve hated for the last 20 years—and for this song, more than any other, that’s like a Nobel Prize-level feat. Now I’ll go back to hating every other version, because I have not yet lost my mind. HAHAHA HAHA HA HA!

Follies @ the Kennedy Center

Follies is one of those unexplained phenomena that should blow into your life every five years or so. It should drop from the slipstream of some magical zephyr or UFO, settle in one place just long enough to break your heart and rattle the rooftop on its beams, and then quietly blow out again, leaving behind a trail of trampled glitter and a thousand marabou feathers, along with an echo that will ring out slowly, slowly, over the next five years, Just like this... It happened just like this....

If you love Follies, you understand: it's a rare but intense condition. It's grand and glorious and bold and messy and weird, some things about it never work and some work almost too well, and if you love it you love it because of all of these things, because it aims so big and so high and so wide that even when it falls, it's just a different kind of flying. And when it soars—when the ladies vamp and the horns rise and the violins dip and sway—you think, Yes. If it came around too often, I would never go back to real life.

If you're like me, you love it when, as here, some performances shine and others barely register. (Who is this "global celebrity" playing Solange? Did she really invent the discotheque? Would you call what she's doing "singing"?) You love that Bernadette Peters ("petite, sweet-faced, still remarkably like the girl she was thirty years ago") takes the stage like a scrappy little terrier, decked out in a decidedly un-Sallylike bull's-eye red to convince herself she can finally wrestle that dream to the ground (she can't, and her "In Buddy's Eyes" suggests that she already knows it). You love the way Jan Maxwell's Phyllis pushes and pulls at the same time, gliding through life by habit yet clearly lost, and the way Elaine Paige actually lives up to her billing ("The First Lady of British Musical Theatre"!) while still making you believe she's... what? Southern? I couldn't tell, I was just glad she nailed those end notes & nailed 'em hard: bam bam HERE! bam bam HERE! bam bam ... HERE!!!!!!!!!! Glamour Cat indeed.

You love that quality in Linda Lavin's delivery, the one that laces every line with a wink, a punch, and a tear, plus a shot of whiskey to wash it all down with. (Solid gold! says I.) You love how Danny Burstein visibly deflates even as the spotlight lingers at the end of "Buddy's Blues." (Does the name "Buddy Plummer" not tell you all you need to know about the life prospects of this character? "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" says I. See also: Robert "Bobby" Cobb.) You love that Ron Raines can holler "I DON'T LOVE ME!" and make it sound like a regret, as well as an honest surprise.

And oh, how much you love it when Terri White steps to the foot of the stage and shouts, "Hit it, baby!" with just enough brass and gumption to steal the whole damn show and stuff it in her pockets. Maybe if you're like me you'll smile and cry through that number, at all these crazy sad old dames trying so hard to catch and hold on to the beautiful girls they remember, to the little lies that they've told, the chances they've missed and the ghosts that surround them.

Most of all, though, you love the ghosts, those ageless goddesses hovering up in the rafters, clinging to the rails, slipping from darkness to shadow in that eerie half light, a hint of silver here, a glint of sparkle there: conscience, guide, demon, cautionary tale, reminder, ellipsis, exclamation point, pause. Relentless and sure, they drift and stop, start and wait and listen. Just like this, they sigh in the wake of that music. It happened just like this....

Fosca in the house

Well, it was quite an evening. Post-Follies stage door, plus post-show cocktails & fois gras at Seppi's, where Fosca was indeed in the house. It's a little hard to not stare at Donna Murphy when she's eating dinner five feet away. Not that we stared; we were too busy talking about Elaine Stritch and coffee.

Still: we love love LOVE Donna Murphy.

Here she's at the stage door, swapping hats with Victor Garber

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Here with Noah

Here with SarahB

Oh dear! I've never felt shorter, less glamorous, or less furry.

Encores! Follies: let’s hear it for the girls upstairs

I discovered Follies in my first Sondheim year, when I was 19. I didn't love it until I turned 23 and spent one entire long, dark, cold night (from sundown to sunup) listening to a loop of the London revival recording on my cool CD Walkman while I formatted Excel spreadsheets for the president of the ad agency where I worked. It became background music after a couple of hours, steady and familiar, like listening to my own breathing, or my own heart beating, simply a sound when sound was needed.

The outline isn't complicated, though the presentation is: showgirls from an early ‘40s musical revue (and their beaus) reunite one last time before their old theater is demolished. Characters confront and cling to past selves, trailed by their own ghosts, going crazy one by one and then slowly picking themselves up again. Returning at the end to the lives they've built, the only thing they know to be true. What are the options? Throw everything else away? Start over?

Perhaps. If it were someone else's show. Lesson #1: Choose honest over happy, because sometimes they are the same thing, even if you cannot see it. (Those cracks in the marble of aging theaters and faces? Illusions shattering.)

What I remember best about that night is "Too Many Mornings": former lovers meet after 30 years apart; both imagine they’ve married the wrong people. For 30 years they’ve dreamed of each other, of the choice they didn’t make: All that time wasted, merely passing through, he sings. Was it ever real? she asks. Did I ever love you this much? (My god, what a question!) Always, he promises her: we can always be this happy. And somehow, for a moment at least, they both believe him. (Lesson #2: Always is a flimsy word to hang a life on. Translations taught me that.) The melody builds with the drama: If you don’t kiss me, Ben, I think I’m gonna die. (Is it any wonder I’ve always found Sally silly? I hate women who are desperate for love.) Lush and romantic, it soars to a climax: "Sally standing at the door / Sally moving to the bed / Sally resting in my arms / With her head against my head."

This—such promise!—is followed by the rise and fall of one lonely oboe, which is then echoed by a single violin: a swoon and a sigh, a question and an answer. And it’s all right there, written in music: you know from that one sad wordless line what their ending will be. (See Lesson #1.) It is both haunting and heartbreaking.

Anyway. I’ve waited a long time to see a live production of Follies (too long, really). The Encores series at City Center is semi-staged (try saying that five times fast), a la Ravinia, with the actors carrying scripts for dialogue scenes (one week to rehearse, what are you gonna do?). But what’s missing? Nothing but time. I can live without a staircase.

Among the highlights: The Mirror Scene (“Who’s That Woman”?), led by JoAnne Worley, choreographed to kicky perfection. Christine Baranski saying anything, or just strutting across the stage (“I’m Still Here” wasn’t a knockout, but it wasn’t a cheat, either, except for the final note), and Mimi Hines stopping the show with “Broadway Baby”—literally, after losing the words and asking the orchestra to begin again (which the audience loved, and which is why people love Encores).

Neither of the male leads (Michael McGrath as Buddy and Victor Garber as the famous Benjamin Stone) seemed quite in step with the spirit of the proceedings, especially when singing—both felt too reserved—although the book scenes carried them through (there’s a reason Victor Garber plays lawyers and shady double agents all the time).

In any event, it was an evening that belonged to two women: Victoria Clark as Sally and Donna Murphy (Donna Murphy!) as Phyllis Rogers Stone. (Lesson #3: Always trust the ladies.) Clark nailed that deluded, fluttering, flippity housewife vibe Sally needs without being matronly and dim about it, and Jesus Christ, that voice. You could feel “Losing My Mind” coming up through the floor. And Miss Donna fits one of my favorite Sondheim ladies like her sleek red satin elbow glove: elegant and angry, damaged and cruel, bitter, resigned, honest, and hopeful. Her "Guess!" at the end of “Could I Leave You” (ah, the greatest "fuck you" song ever) was choked and painful, more fear than dare, and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" was a saucy, sad, tongue-twisting high-stepper. I think Donna Murphy can do anything.

And what do you say after something like that? More, please.

~ Photos lifted from the New York Times