The annual Encores! series has kicked off with a brilliant recreation of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, book by James Goldman, first seen in 1971. It is a far cry from the early Encores!, when actors read from scripts and production values were minimal. Brilliantly choreographed and directed by Casey Nicholaw, this Follies could go to Broadway in yet another revival if its stellar cast, which includes Christine Baranski, Philip Bosco, Victoria Clark, Victor Garber, Michael McGrath and Donna Murphy plus top theatre talents of earlier years such as JoAnne Worley and opera diva Lucine Amara, were all available.
Nicholaw, whose most recent show The Drowsy Chaperone still brightens Broadway, has got under the skin of the backstage tale of two Follies girls whose marriages have gone cold, brought into focus as they attend a goodbye party in the theatre now scheduled for demolition, where they once performed. Around this Nicholaw has conjured the illusion of Ziegfeld lavishness, although the orchestra (expertly conducted by Eric Stern) is on stage and shallow staircases, perfect for the step-step dip of showgirls with ostrich-feather fans, is constricting for ambitious dance numbers. Victoria Clark is Sally, married to one-time stage partner Buddy (Michael McGrath). She hankers after debonair, disillusioned Ben (Victor Garber), now a businessman married to bored, sophisticated Phyllis, astringently played by Donna Murphy. As their drama of angst and disappointment unfolds, doubles portraying their younger selves interact with them.
It is the songs spun around showbiz life that are the show’s heart. Christine Baranski gives smoky impetus to that ode to ageing actresses, “I’m Still Here”; Mimi Hines belts “Broadway Baby” like the broadest of broads and big, glittery Jo Anne Worley cheerleads a chorus line-up in “Who’s That Woman?” Playing a hurt soul beneath a brash exterior, McGrath betters his youthful shadow in song and dance, brilliantly putting over “Buddy’s Folly” as crass burlesque laced with self-loathing. Victoria Clark, the sweet-tempered housewife teetering on cracking up, crowns her sensitive performance with the heart-breaking “Losing My Mind” and Donna Murphy, shedding her icy persona from act one, lets it rip as the hot song-and-dance siren she once was with “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”. In short, this is one Encores! where you really do want to yell encore.
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