Who says nothing special ever happens in New Jersey? Something is happening right now, something so special it’s turning into a blooming miracle. I’m talking about Follies , Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking musical milestone, which is getting its first-ever revival in the New York area since its original 1971 Broadway production directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett. It’s happening at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., where it runs through May 31 in an epic production that is currently the No. 1 topic of conversation in New York theatrical circles and the hottest ticket to beg, borrow or steal. All this and Ann Miller, too! Grift, grind, or hitchhike if necessary. Do whatever it takes. Just get there. It is simply sensational.
In case you were not around in 1971 to experience the dazzling excitement of Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Yvonne De Carlo, Gene Nelson, John McMartin and the rest of the illustrious original cast or hear Mr. Sondheim’s seminal knockout Broadway score, or see the ghosts of those fabulous Follies showgirls descend the stairs to “Beautiful Girls,” this production not only re-creates the glitter and glamour of a bygone era in the history of entertainment, but enhances its glories and ironies, too. The weak book by James Goldman has been trimmed, firmed up and reworked by the author and given a sharper focus. Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestrations sound fresher than ever. The witty new choreography by Jerry Mitchell and the passionate staging by Robert Johanson are inspired. And a flawless cast of 38 singers and dancers literally explodes with talent and exuberance.
This is no tacky summer stock experience. This is a lavishly designed, opulently imaginative production that is positively staggering in its artistry. Except for the 1985 concert version at Lincoln Center with an all-star cast including Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Mandy Patinkin, Licia Albanese, George Hearn and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and the 1987 London production with Diana Rigg and Dolores Gray, Follies has been in danger of turning into a neglected masterpiece. The time for a comeback is now. And I cannot imagine a more splendid, majestic or heartbreaking homecoming. All this and Ann Miller, too!
The setting is a reunion of faded beauties and over-the-hill stars who have returned for one night to the Ziegfeld Follies-type theater where they once shared the bill. The decaying show palace has been marked for demolition to make way for a parking lot, and the impresario who once gave it life (zestfully played by Eddie Bracken) has assembled his old cast one last time to relive the good old days and take one final champagne sip of the glorious past. During the evening, old loves rekindle and old numbers are re-created while younger versions of the cast swirl around their older selves and the alluring, star-spangled ghosts of Follies chorines waft in and out of the scenery like lavish, luminous phantoms. Show-business traditions mingle with outmoded nostalgia as the principals confront their own failures and regrets. Life, like show business, must invoke the past in order to make peace with the present and survive the future. All this and Ann Miller, too!
To bring one of Mr. Sondheim’s richest scores to life, a thrilling ensemble of polished pros brings years of experience and showmanship to the stage, milking every turbulent song for maximum impact. Phyllis Newman stops the show with “Who’s That Woman?”; Kaye Ballard is a huggable rag doll knocking the stuffing out of “Broadway Baby”; and Liliane Montevecchi sails through “Ah, Paree” with French panache. As the old Follies dance team, Donald Saddler and Natalie Mosco have charm and grace to spare.
And as the two married couples whose marriages are crumbling, Donna McKechnie and Tony Roberts are perfectly cast as the couple who found disillusionment in Phoenix, while Dee Hoty and Laurence Guit- tard hit a tarnished bull’s-eye as the ones who achieved wealth and fame but lost their spirit and optimism in the bargains and compromises they’ve made in their lives. Ms. Hoty is all marble while Mr. Guittard crumples in his tux like crushed wax paper, tall and sophisticated one minute, small as a rumpled Munchkin the next. “Losing My Mind,” with its slurred sax solos and corny imagery, was always my idea of a torch song parody, but Ms. McKechnie sings it with so much persuasion, it could become a hit all over again.
The wonderful “Lucy and Jessie” number Alexis Smith christened in the original production has been replaced by an inferior song called “Ah, but Underneath,” a brittle striptease written for Diana Rigg in the London production, but Ms. Hoty oozes through it so cleverly (with choreography reminiscent of one of those Jack Cole numbers for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ) that she makes you forget and forgive. Otherwise, the score is very much intact and shining brightly. All this, and Ann Miller, too!
As the cherry on the sundae, the septuagenarian survivor of the golden era of M-G-M musicals literally pours a lifetime of personal experience into the evening’s biggest show-stopper, the famous “I’m Still Here.” Drenched in sapphire blue, one glorious M-G-M leg extended through the sequins and ready for a close-up, she wails “I got through all of last year/ And I’m here!” and you had better believe it, brother. Every line of this survival anthem is another chapter in the story of her life, and she sells the humor and the tears and the emotional subtext with heart-stopping honesty. When she examines her ring finger and kisses a diamond as big as the Ritz, you can only imagine what she did to get it. I’ve seen a lot of stars past their prime tackle this no-fail song by acting it; Ms. Miller electrifies the audience by living it, in a rare and chilling example of art imitating life, and vice versa. If Follies is about the collapse of the American dream, then Ms. Miller smudges the line between reality and illusion with a poignancy that is shattering.
There isn’t anything this good on Broadway, and that’s a consensus. Plans are, in fact, underfoot to bring this production of Follies to Broadway as soon as a theater becomes available, a problem that will no doubt solve itself after this year’s Tony Awards on June 7 separate the casualties from the survivors of the current season. Meanwhile, there is this triumphant new production of Follies to remind us what a salvation a real Broadway musical can be when genius flourishes in all the right places. All this, and Ann Miller, too!
She’s 70 …
And Still Here
Rosemary Clooney says her present show at Rainbow & Stars will be her last. Don’t panic. She’s hale and hearty, singing and swinging better than ever. It’s just that the most glamorous room in town is closing down forever. On New Year’s Eve, it will be eight bars and out, so plan ahead. For now, Rosie is celebrating her 70th birthday, her 10th annual anniversary appearance 65 floors above Rockefeller Center and a brand-new Concord Jazz release with a big “70” on the cover.
After five kids, two husbands, nine grandchildren and a wall full of gold records, maybe it’s Rosie who should be singing “I’m Still Here.” Instead, she’s dusting off the highlights of her 70 years, singing a compilation of her favorite songs. Oh, there’s always something new (on the new CD, she sings with both Linda Ronstadt and K.D. Lang). But mostly, it’s the tried and true. A delicately modulated “Don’t Fence Me In,” an amusing and gently rocking “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You” and a rueful “Do You Miss New York?” are highlights.
There’s a soupçon of Gershwin, a pinch of Jerome Kern, and some throbbing Antonio Carlos Jobim. Vocal solos by trumpeter George Rabbai and bassist Jay Leonhart add diversity to the proceedings and for extra spice, Rosie is featuring special guest stars each night. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, James Naughton, Michael Feinstein, Lucy Arnaz and guitarist John Pizzarelli have already appeared. Harry Crosby and Dolores Hope are still to come, and on her closing night, May 23 (the date of her actual birthday), the “surprise guest” will be the one and only Tony Bennett.
When she sings James Taylor’s “The Secret of Life,” the lyrics have never been truer: “Since we’re only here for a while/ we might as well show some style.” Straight from the heart, right to the point, understated and completely in tune, Rosemary Clooney has plenty of it, luxurious and laid-back, and she spreads it like butter.
At the Firebird Cafe, actress-singer Jane A. Johnston is giving a recital of soigné , late-nights-in-the-good-old-days material that is very special indeed. On piano, the illustrious West Coast composer Billy Barnes, whose famous songs include “Something Cool” and “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair.” In a show embroidered with exquisite taste, the comedy songs by Mr. Barnes suit Ms. Johnston best. “Buns” is an ode to the male derriere, while “A Little Lift” extols the joys of liposuction. There’s a bit of Marlene Dietrich, some tasty Rodgers & Hart, and two Cole Porter gems I thought only Bobby Short could sing. Middle-aged and snow-capped, Ms. Johnston is like somebody’s dotty, been-around-awhile aunt, the one the children adore but the square relatives are afraid to invite on Thanksgiving for fear of what she might do with the dinner rolls.