One doesn't often talk about architecture when writing about musicals, but the most impressive thing about "Follies," beyond Stephen Sondheim's bejeweled score, is the ingenious way it is constructed. This may not be the best-written musical of all time, but it's certainly the most brilliantly conceptualized.
Setting their 1971 work in an old Ziegfeld-era theater that is about to be torn down, Sondheim and book writer James Goldman extend an invitation to audiences to step inside a crumbling show palace jam-packed with backstage and boudoir ghosts. (The gorgeously dilapidated set by Derek McLane, draped in funereal black, lends director Eric Schaeffer's revival a spooky lyricism.)
Of course it's really the characters who are haunted in "Follies" — haunted by the regrets and recriminations that are inevitable with the passing of time. And the two mismatched couples at the heart of the show — a pair of aging Weismann Follies showgirls and their jaded husbands who have come along for this theatrical reunion and farewell — are brought to life in all their moonlit melancholy by Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark, who has replaced Bernadette Peters, the only principal not reprising her role here.
It's not easy to make a musical out of a quartet of midlife crises. When "Follies" first came out, some found the sentiment dyspeptic, as though the American musical had been hijacked by Eugene O'Neill. But tastes change, and what might have once been considered a cult hit has become an undeniable classic.
This production, which originated at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is almost an embarrassment of riches. Elaine Paige, Britain's reigning queen of musical theater, is onboard as one of the returning Weismann girls, and her rendition of "I'm Still Here," as kittenish as it is brassy, is reason enough for every Sondheim fanatic in the region to parachute down to the Music Center.
No less marvelous is Jayne Houdyshell's handling of "Broadway Baby," an interpretation that begins in gray-haired nostalgia and ends in a brief, ambivalent blaze of recaptured youth. (Were it not unseemly for a critic to scream "encore" during a performance, I would have happily shouted the request after both these numbers.)
Sondheim has called "Follies" an "orgy of pastiche," and the score is indeed a valentine to the composers and lyricists who flourished between the World Wars. The music, beautifully realized by a 28-piece orchestra under the musical direction of James Moore, digs deeper into the psychology of the characters than Goldman's book, which is better at establishing a dramatic world than at setting it in motion.
Maxwell, looking glamorous and impossibly leggy in Gregg Barnes' costumes, plays Phyllis, the cold and disaffected wife of the rich and powerful Benjamin Stone, who, as debonairly portrayed by Raines, is a man who has spent a lifetime pursuing ambition while skirting emotion. Clark is Sally, a lost and neurotic empty-nester married to Buddy Plummer, a salesman whose ordinariness is wielded by Burstein like a theatrical weapon.
The back story of these characters, relived onstage by actors playing their younger selves, centers on Sally's abiding love for Ben. Thirty years have passed since their love affair, but he remains a fantasy of what her life might have been had he married her instead of Phyllis.
How does Sondheim convey this emotion? Not with a schmaltzy romantic ballad but with the sublimely complicated "In Buddy's Eyes," in which Sally expresses to Ben her gratitude for her husband's tenderness. She is, of course, deflecting her deeper feelings for Ben, but might she not also be unconsciously telling him a truth she keeps even from herself? Sondheim's music and lyrics are as complex as our motivations, and Clark tinges the song with an incandescent sorrow.
"Follies" understands the way we replay the past to escape the dissatisfying present, even if we vainly try to shrug off the nagging doubts, as Ben does in "The Road You Didn't Take." But the creators are just as interested in exploring the role of popular entertainment in perpetuating fictions, particularly those with happily-ever-after endings. The underlying sensibility of this show is more committed to shattering illusions and coming to terms with difficult — though not intolerable — truths.
No wonder "Follies" is considered such a watershed in the history of the American musical. Although its 1971 premiere is more distant to us now than the Weismann Follies is to Sally and Phyllis, the show, which combines extraordinary Broadway showmanship with the consciousness of Proust, is still light years ahead of us.
The fantasy Follies sequence that transforms the stage into a wonderland of tulle represents the apotheosis of the musical's vision. And all elements of Schaeffer's production — especially Warren Carlyle's increasingly frenetic choreography and Natasha Katz's otherworldly lighting — come together to convey what is in effect a theatrically rapturous collective nervous breakdown.
The two standout performances are by Burstein in the manic vaudeville "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" and Maxwell in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" — both of which strike me as definitive, though I'll be happy to be proven wrong. The formality of Clark's manner of singing undercuts some of the pathos of Sally's cri de coeur "Losing My Mind" (the sentiment is illustrated rather than vocalized), but that might be a blessing given that the emotion is already crushing. Raines' suaveness still lets in plenty of grief in "Live, Laugh, Love." And Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott, Christian Delcroix and Nick Verina, who play the couples' younger incarnations, extract every ounce of ironic delight from "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow," and there's an oceanful of it.
"Follies" appears to be the heavy favorite to win the Tony for best revival this year. If you head to the Ahmanson, you'll understand why. But better to see the show for its inspiring example of how musical theater, stretched to its limit by the genius of Sondheim, can hold the mirror simultaneously up to nature and showbiz.
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends June 9.
Price: $20 to $150
Contact: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/Follies
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes