Posted by: operatheaterink | May 28, 2012

Review: ‘Follies,’ Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, May 28, 2012

Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ Revival at the Ahmanson is Sheer Magic!!!!

Jan Maxwell, center, and Ensemble. Photo: Craig Schwartz

SEEN MAY 26, 2012

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

As a 60-something-year-old writer who recently dusted off her old acting shoes and produced a show at the Santa Monica Playhouse, I found Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles to be utterly inspirational.

What makes Sondheim’s superb musical a gem is that it is far more than just a musical. Just a plain wonderful musical would have been enough, which “Follies” is; but this musical has meaning and depth, so as you sit in the audience loving the melodies, you also find yourself listening to every word sung and said, reflecting on your own life – the things that were important to you that no longer are; your goals, regrets and missed opportunities; and your understanding of love, and how that has changed. It really does help to be over 50 to really comprehend the essence of this musical. But there is much for the younger generation to enjoy as well.

The inspiration stems from the story line, which basically centers around two aging performers who meet with their former colleagues in the old theater of their hay day when they were part of the “Weismann Follies.” These former showgirls have brought their husbands along, and as the four reflect on the past, their marriages unravel.

Naturally, in order for the show to be appropriately cast, older actors, singers and dancers were needed, or they had to be made up to play mature. When seeing such singers and dancers perform, there is usually a wearing down of either their voices, vocal technique, or ability to move or dance. Not so in this show. Members of the cast were graying — if not actually, then figuratively. But they could dance and sing – putting most young people under the table. Seeing this incredible display of talent could only make me stop complaining about my own age as a baby boomer facing retirement, and think about the truism that age is in the mind, and that a youthful outlook means the realization of youthful abilities. Rather than retire, when seeing these incredible performers, all I wanted to do was shout from the rooftops that life could very well begin after 55, 60, or even 65.

The film and television industries in Hollywood are geared for the younger generation. This play should truly garner their respect for the elderly.

Mark you, the production did showcase some younger performers as well, who portrayed the main characters as they had appeared in their youth as both shadows and ghosts. And there were some wonderful Ziegfeld-type showgirls prancing around the stage in front of some magical pink flowers which took the audience into a fantasy loveland. Their costumes were simply lush – some in the nude flesh-colored tone with sequins and other ornamental jewels appliquéd on them.

But the inspiration for me was the performers and the vigor of their theatrical execution. A number of them are Tony-nominated actors and could very well win a Tony for their performances in this 1971 “Follies” revival, which opened at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and then went to Broadway.

Jan Maxwell (Phyllis Rogers Stone) is a marvel. She is tall and statuesque, and she communicated an energy to the audience that was astounding. Over 50, she looked stunning in an elegant goldish white-sequined gown; her voice was strong and secure; and her dancing was phenomenal, with sensational moves and acrobatics. She has the style of an old-time star. Sheerly wonderful!

Victoria Clark (Sally Durant Plummer) was a delight. Being an opera person, it was so nice to hear a well-trained voice that could really go the distance. I loved the soprano elements of it, and how Clark was able to also dig down deeper and chestier, and do it all without a break in her voice and without jolting the audience’s attention. When she sang “In Buddy’s Eyes,” she was sensitive and appreciative of her husband’s steadfast devotion. When she sang “Losing My Mind,” she held the audience spellbound. Her emotionality was intense, both vocally and physically.

The two men in the women’s lives were also quite marvelous. Ron Raines was Benjamin Stone. He charmed us with his dancing and vocality. Danny Burstein (Buddy Plummer) brought Broadway to Los Angeles with this show. He is a true song-and-dance man. His portrayal of a down-to-earth Joe was on target.

Jayne Houdyshell (Hattie Walker) stopped the show with “Broadway Baby.” She had that graying power that proved indestructible.

Elaine Paige’s Carlotta had that Mama Rose quality in a strong rendition of “I’m Still Here.”

I especially liked Mary Beth Peil’s Solange. What a great character! And the glow emanating from Susan Watson’s young-at-heart Emily was contagious, as was the tap-tap-tapping and vibrant personality of Terri White.

The orchestra under the direction of James Moore provided excellent support, and the entire ensemble sang, danced and acted with precision.

I have to take a moment to single out soprano diva Carol Neblett since I often review opera. I saw her name in the program and thought that the character of Heidi Schiller was probably being played by someone else with the same name. But then when she walked on the stage, I knew it was her. Neblett has sung in all of the major opera houses in the world and was an international star, singing with tenors like Plácido Domingo a few years back. She currently teaches and is an artist-in-residence at Chapman University.

Her part was not a large one. She appeared to be a supernumerary (extra) in the first half, but had some nice lines. Then later, she sang a short duet: “One More Kiss.” Beginning as a soloist, her voice immediately revealed its splendor and singularity. Not as young as she once was, her movement showed maturity which was appropriate for the character. But when she began singing, everyone in the audience knew they were hearing something special and listened attentively in reverence. Her duet partner (Leah Horowitz) sang well, but the additional voice made it difficult for me to hear Neblett, and I wanted to hear more. Although all of the voices in the production were excellent for musical theater, Neblett’s voice immediately surfaced for its purity and operatic timbre. The audience was quick to acknowledge the sound with an applause after a very short sampling. Again, it was wonderful to see another senior performer rise to the occasion with such magnetism.

Everything about this production was ideal except possibly the ending: I wasn’t quite sure that it happened. Something seemed missing. Was it time for the audience to applaud?

But outside of that, director Eric Schaeffer, choreographer Warren Carlyle and music director James Moore have created a “Follies” that is entertaining and at the same time, thought-evoking, touching, visually provocative, memorable and exciting. I loved it!

The show continues through June 9, 2012.

Director: Eric Schaeffer
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Music Direction: James Moore
Choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: Kai Harada
Costume Design: Gregg Barnes
Hair & Wig Design: David Brian Brown
Make-up Design: Joseph Dulude II
Associate Director: David Ruttura
Casting: Laura Stanczyk Casting
Production Stage Manager: Ray Gin
Company Manager: Mark Rozzano
Production Manager: Juniper Street Productions
Center Theatre Group Artistic Director: Michael Ritchie

A Video from the Past: Carol Neblett Sings Tosca