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'Follies' says goodbye to the Ahmanson, hello to the Tonys

“Follies” bid farewell to the Ahmanson Theatre on Saturday night, and the emotion in the house was as charged as the emotion coursing through the Weismann Theatre, where the ex-Follies girls have gathered with their significant others, old dreams, lingering disappointments and faltering hopes.
 
Jubilation, nostalgia and, yes , the ache of anticipated loss — the complex rush of feelings was in complete sync with James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 classic. It was a fitting ending here for a revival that began at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., made a splash on Broadway after a few cast changes and tweaks and, riding high after its L.A. triumph, should walk away Sunday with a few Tony Awards.
 
Several company members were whisked after Saturday night’s performance on a private plane to New York, so they could be at the ceremony.  Jet lag surely won’t stop Danny Burstein from delivering a fired-up rendition of “Buddy’s Folly,” which he’s performing on Sunday’s CBS telecast.
 
Burstein was in top form Saturday night, and he has a decent shot to win the award for lead actor in a musical, though he’ll have to hold off his suave costar Ron Raines, as well as stiff competition from Jeremy Jordan from "Newsies: The Musical" Steve Kazee from “Once” and Norm Lewis from “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”

Critics usually attend openings, not final performances, but I wouldn’t have missed my last chance to savor Eric Schaeffer’s production, which I originally saw in New York with Bernadette Peters in the role of Sally. One of the benefits of my return was discovering the extent to which Victoria Clark has made the role her own. Her characterization was deeper and her singing suppler — nowhere more so than in her handling of “Losing My Mind.” The song’s heartbreak was fully realized by Clark, who came to inhabit the sentiment vocally as well psychologically, mining the lyrics of all their exquisite pathos.
 
Jan Maxwell was as stringently sublime as ever as Phyllis. In any rational universe, she’d be a shoo-in for the Tony for lead actress in a musical. However, this is a world that contains the outlandish greatness of Audra McDonald, whose portrayal of Bess in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” has only cemented her legend.

What a treat to experience once again Jayne Houdyshell’s peppery version of “Broadway Baby” and Elaine Paige’s scintillating interpretation of “I’m Still Here.” (Has anyone ever sung it better?) Lovelier the second time around was Carol Neblett and Leah Horowitz’s handling of “One More Kiss,” the duet between Heidi and her younger self that expresses the immortal quality of romantic longing as experienced by helplessly mortal beings.
 
But the most thrilling — and unexpectedly moving — moment was Terri White as Stella rounding up the ladies for “Who’s That Woman?" and the big mirror number.  The explosive reaction of the audience to this sensational Act 1 crowd-pleaser, enlivened by Warren Carlyle's choreographic jeu d’esprit, brought White (and many of us in the audience) to tears.
 
Actors aren’t supposed to break character, but “Follies” is a work that blurs the line between life and the stage, and the emotion pouring out of White was in perfect harmony with a show that more profoundly than any other musical illuminates the mournful theatrical beauty of time passing.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com
twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

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