Ignore the Critics; Go See Follies Julie Wilson’s Moody Music

Ignore the Critics; Go See Follies

I hate critics who hack away at each other in print almost as much as I hate anchovies. I will therefore do what everyone else in town is doing. I will ignore the churlish reviews of Follies , join the rest of the passionate theatergoers who stand in line at the Belasco like they were giving away free caviar, and cheer the richest and most sophisticated, intelligent and emotionally satisfying musical on Broadway for a second time. I know I will love it all over again.

I cannot remember when I have heard, witnessed or experienced this much public resistance to the critics. Since the tepid reviews of the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s seminal musical appeared, the show is selling out every performance and has extended its run until January. The audiences are like demonstrators in a peace march on Washington, undeterred in their resolve to right all wrongs and undaunted in their dedication to see justice prevail. They arrive applauding the ushers.

I’m still shocked, and somewhat baffled, too, by those nitpicking reviewers. This one liked Alexis Smith better than Blythe Danner, that one thinks Judith Ivey can’t sing. One moron even wrote that as great as Polly Bergen is in the role of Carlotta, the fading film star who stops the show cold with the story of her life on “I’m Still Here,” she can’t erase the memory of Elaine Stritch. For the record, Ms. Stritch has never played that role or sung that song in her entire life. What planet are these people from? The audience is from Venus, the critics from Mars. They overlook the fact that all the things they’re whining and grousing about in the current Roundabout revival make this the most humanly accessible, perfectly realized version of Follies ever produced.

Scaling down the costs makes you feel you are really attending a reunion of Follies showgirls in a once-glorious Broadway house now marked for demolition to make way for a new parking lot. Casting actors who can sing a lot instead of singers who can act a little camouflages the flaws in James Goldman’s uneven book for the first time. I’ve seen every major production of Follies , including Harold Prince’s memorable but lavishly overproduced 1971 original, the beloved concert version at Lincoln Center, the controversial London production and the recent revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse. I loved them all. But this is a different, darker vision of the show that emphasizes the loss, regret, change, redemption, survival and death that are the crucibles of life. More clearly than ever, the Follies stage becomes a microcosm of life’s destinies, reflected in a clouded mirror. Follies is like Shakespeare, but this is the first time I have ever seen each and every diverse and conflicting element in this massive and ambitious show come together so seamlessly.

Purists may miss the glittering Florence Klotz costumes or the spectacular Boris Aronson sets that made the show a feast for the eyes in 1971. Music mavens might lament the loss of an elaborate orchestra, now reduced to 12 musicians. But stripped of the usual opulent distractions, the sad lament for lost innocence symbolized by magnificent Sondheim songs like “The Road You Didn’t Take” and “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” becomes more focused. The changes actually enhance the show, without sacrificing any of its intrinsic entertainment value. The aging showgirls who attend this Follies reunion arrive in their own clothes, and it isn’t likely that a party on any empty stage in town would be accompanied by a band the size of the New York Philharmonic. The perceptive direction by Matthew Warchus is cinematic in style, opening a wide-angle lens for the big numbers, then zooming in for the substance beneath the emotions in the closeups. You never feel distanced from the pain or the joy of the participants; in this production, you’re in the Follies, too.

To pick away at the production values of this scaled-down Follies not only undermines what Mr. Warchus and Mr. Sondheim intended, but also overlooks the show’s overwhelming talent factor. There is more of it on display than in 10 other shows combined. No matter what you hear elsewhere, take my word on this: The four leads are pure perfection. As one of the two couples whose unhappy marriages face their moment of truth at the Follies reunion, Gregory Harrison and Blythe Danner play the privileged and exclusive Benjamin and Phyllis Stone. Epitomizing the American dream gone sour, he’s a business icon with warped values who has forgotten how to live, and Mr. Harrison plays him with a mixture of cold reserve and inner desperation that makes you root for him to see the light before the evening ends. (And this guy can really sing.)

As much as I’ve admired Alexis Smith, Lee Remick, Diana Rigg and Dee Hoty in the pivotal role of Phyllis, Ms. Danner is in a class by herself. Caustic, brittle and world-weary, she hides the heart that still beats under her form-fitting haute couture from the other partygoers, but never from the audience. Her comic timing is perfect; she sings “Could I Leave You” like a real diva, and tackles Mr. Sondheim’s juicy but exhausting “Story of Lucy and Jessie” number kicking, swaying and striding musically from one end of the proscenium to the other in sexy pink silk, with the arrogant abandon of a beauty pageant winner who has just been crowned in Atlantic City. If she ever tires of stardom, awards and adulation, she can always join the Rockettes. There is nothing she can’t do, but who knew she had such knockout legs?

Their suburban counterparts, Sally and Buddy Plummer, are beautifully played by Judith Ivey and Treat Williams. As a woman who married the right man and tortured herself for 30 years longing for the wrong one, Ms. Ivey is heartbreakingly direct and appealingly honest enough to bring tears to the most jaded eyes. Mr. Williams, as the neglected husband guilty of extramarital affairs for the warmth and affection he never got at home, has a masculine vulnerability that is gruff, charming and tender, often at the same time, and his show-stopping baggy-pants number, “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” is the kind of stuff that made Bert Lahr famous. In fact, the entirety of the brilliant Act II “Loveland” dream sequence, mistakenly interpreted by many as Sondheim’s excuse to pay homage to song styles and routines from bygone eras, is staged more like a film noir here-a garish nightmare with flashing red lights and vulgar color schemes to emphasize the split personalities of the four leads. It’s a Dante’s Inferno for vaudevillians.

Wafting in and out of the action-sipping drinks, telling anecdotes and surrounded by the ghosts of their younger selves-are the old pros from the past, who get one final chance to recreate the numbers that defined their careers and share brief synopses of their own bios. Betty Garrett brings a lifetime of wistful, wide-eyed innocence and professional show-business polish to “Broadway Baby”; Jane White is a hilarious French chanteuse; Carol Woods opens up her tonsils and blasts off; and daisy-fresh, ageless Marge Champion and elegant Donald Saddler, as a husband-and-wife dance team reminiscent of Kathryn and Arthur Murray (or what’s wrong with Marge and Gower Champion?), glide gracefully across the floor with the kind of magic that went the way of M.G.M. musicals.

Everyone else is entrancing-especially the triumphant, one-woman show named Polly Bergen, still gorgeous after all these years, and in the best vocal shape of her illustrious career. When she summons her vast knowledge of body language to articulately belt out the Sondheim anthem “I’m Still Here,” she not only sings the show’s underlying philosophy but acts it, too. She is the ultimate survivor, and for the time she’s in the center spot, the humor, pride, power and force with which she admits it turns Follies into something of a historic occasion.

Is it any surprise that during the ovations at the end of the show, audiences at every performance stand on their seats and blow a hole in the Richter scale? They don’t know what hit them, but they know they’ve finally been to the theater and it will be a long time before they pass this way again. In their knowledge bank, somewhere between the heart of Follies and the raw emotions in their response, an interplay has been established, a rapturous splendor, of the disciplined energy that is art.

Julie Wilson’s Moody Music

Julie Wilson, the most captivating septuagenarian in cabaret, is back on her throne for a brief visit to the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room, celebrating the songs of two polar opposites in American songwriting, the late, crusty and much adored Dorothy Fields and the hip, long-winded and very contemporary Amanda McBroom. With a purple feather boa draped sensuously around her swan neck, a skintight black lace gown clinging to her curvaceous thighs and a fresh trademark gardenia in her hair, Ms. Wilson is ready for them both. Her expressive face can turn on a dime from a mask of tragedy to a smile of mischief, and the range of the songs provides that face with ample possibilities to explore her vast acting abilities.

With the great Dorothy Fields, she plays it safe, with evergreens like “Remind Me” and “Lovely to Look At.” Still, with fresh arrangements by her pianist, Mark Hummel, you can expect a few surprises from the old gal yet. Their breathless, galloping take on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is the closest thing to sophisticated, soignée rap you’ll ever hear. She reserves her strength for the tough, introspective drama of Ms. McBroom’s plot songs. Her lyrics have so many words it’s no wonder Ms. Wilson forgets so many of them. About half of this material is depressing stuff about daydreaming housewives, disillusioned older women and other miserable miscreants. Finally, a note of optimism appears on a song called “Wheels.” “Wheels, wonderful wheels, racing along with your back to the wind,” sings Ms. Wilson. Sounds nice, until you realize it’s a song about a homeless bag lady pushing a rusty cart full of old tin cans.

I prefer her singing Cy Coleman. But who can fault Julie Wilson? A fountain of the kind of wisdom that only comes with age, she is warm, enthusiastic, sincere and generous. She even plugs other singers and cabaret rooms. All of her CD’s are on sale in the lobby.