Stephen Sondheim's Follies is something like the El Dorado (or maybe the great white whale) of his career - the single production so ambitious and demanding that it can never be reproduced. The original was inspired by a photo of Gloria Swanson mourning the Roxy Theatre (above), and was staged almost as extravagantly as its namesake, the Ziegfield Follies, with six-foot showgirls stalking the shadows of the Winter Garden Theatre. But it was also one of the first "concept" musicals, dragging an unwilling audience away from Hello, Dolly! and toward Hello, Albee! Perhaps that intellectual edge - plus a middling review from Clive Barnes in the Times - did in the show, or perhaps it was simply the gamble on the physical production; whatever the reason, despite a brace of Tonys, Follies closed after little more than a year, and lost money.
But since that premature closing its legend has only grown. Concert versions (and Barbara Cook) kept reminding us that this was one of Sondheim's greatest scores (with not only "Losing My Mind," his most haunting torch number, but also "Beautiful Girls," "Broadway Baby," "I'm Still Here," and more). But its musical legend almost begged the question: did the show itself - with its then-avant conceptualism, and interpolation of past and present - match Sondheim's ambitious mix of satiric pastiche and affectionate rue?
Well, we still don't know the answer to that question, even though the Lyric Stage, under Spiro Veloudos's direction, has just mounted a full production. Or perhaps "attempted" might be the better word. The Lyric has pulled off pocket miracles before (with Urinetown and 1776), but this may have led the little theatre that could to bite off and chew more than it can; plenty of shows can be boiled down to their essence, but the "essence" of Follies is its wrecked grandeur, and our relationship to that romantic ravishment. Without said ravishment, Follies looks like folly itself. It's not just that the Lyric is cramped (so the show's two time frames all but elbow each other for space), it's that what resources the theatre has have this time been squandered: Rafael Jaen's costumes may inspire their own legend as the least flattering wardrobe ever seen on a local stage, Janie E. Howland's set is drab rather than decayed, and Scott Clyve's lighting, overwhelmed by too many effects in too small a space, just looks muddy. And director Veloudos has cut too many corners to cover the cast of seeming thousands (the younger and older versions of several characters, for instance, vary in height by several inches). Let's face it, "the magic of theatre" can only stretch so far - if we're constantly bumping our heads on one technical glitch after another, we can never really lose ourselves in the show.
Indeed, I'd argue the production probably distorts the intended impact of Follies - in this stripped-down version, James Goldman's choppy, Albee-lite book is thrown into higher relief than it should be. The book does crackle with bitterly witty lines, but with the showstoppers it's supposed to frame gone missing (above), we're too aware of its gaps, repetitions, and odd vagaries. (What exactly does the high-flying Ben do for a living?) And a certain note of artifical hysteria in the lead performance - which seems gauged to a larger house - doesn't help matters.
The plot famously follows two former chorines, who "married wrong" years ago - and who now, crossing paths at a celebration of "The Weissman Follies" in a theatre set for demolition, have ample chance to ponder a few follies of their own. Soon they're being dogged not just by their regrets but by the ghosts of their former selves, and you don't have to be Frank Rich to figure that the theatre isn't the only thing ripe for demolition - although if you guessed that the characters' marriages are in Sondheim's sights, you'd have guessed wrong.
No, the Master uses the musical form itself for target practice - that is, when he's not conjuring its lost seductions. "Beautiful Girls" beautifully recalls Irving Berlin, "Losing My Mind" channels Jerome Kern, and there are nods toward the Gershwins, Porter, and most of the other greats of Broadway's Golden Era. Luckily, the Lyric's Follies comes through on the score of the score. Although there are a few balance problems when the brass come in, this is, I have to say, still a solid concert version of the show (Veloudos helmed an earlier one in 2003, with much the same cast). Even among the leads, the acting is a little variable - Leigh Barrett struggles quietly to play dumb, and Maryann Zschau comes on like a cobra and stays coiled throughout. But both nail their respective numbers ("Losing My Mind," I confess, always makes me lose mine, and even though it seems set low this time around, Barrett is as affecting as you'd expect). Plus there are saucy, broad turns from three other beloved local broads, Kathy St. George, Kerry A. Dowling, and Bobbie Steinbach. But only the reliable Peter A. Carey pulls together a great musical and acting performance (he can actually dance, too).
And truth be told, I'm not sure Spiro Veloudos is the ideal director for Follies, even given the means; mournful atmosphere is hardly his forte. Still, I can recognize a labor of love when I see one; it's just too bad that this time love doesn't see him through. Follies aficionados may still be satisfied, however, simply to hear Boston's showgirls tear through this terrific score one more time.