Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Kennedy Center at dusk.

Lots of thunder in Washington over the holiday weekend, and none of it in the sky. One form was the glut of revving motorcycles whose riders roared into town for the annual “Rolling Thunder” tribute to soldiers lost in war. It creates a din that’s heard citywide for three days. The other thunder, from clapping hands, is lasting much longer, rumbling the rafters of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater during and after each performance of Stephen Sondheim’s revived 1971 hit, Follies. It appeals to Washington in a big way.

The popularity of the show is probably obvious (great songs, dazzling costumes, pretty women, buff dancers) but also curious, at least to me, and in analyzing it may speak to Washington’s aspirational inner self: yearning for the past, an uncomplicated message, and showstoppers.

Follies is nothing if not easy to understand—the sentiment and regrets of faded glory and love—and is packed with showstoppers; every diva gets her moment in the spotlight, center stage. The seats are filled with Baby Boomers.

I’m an unabashed Stephen Sondheim fan and a fortunate one at that. I got to see the original Company on Broadway in October 1970 at the Alvin Theater. It thrilled me and remains my numero uno theater memory. (The Kennedy Center did a delightful revival of “Company” in 2002.) Due to Company, I raced to see Follies at the Winter Garden soon after it opened in 1971.

Interestingly, Follies won seven Tony Awards to Company’s six, but for me it wasn’t the same experience. It just seemed so much older, as in aged, and that’s probably because it was about older people, and I was far, far from old.

This time around I am practically the same age as the characters and, therefore, viewed it with new eyes.

Follies original cast included Dorothy Collins as Sally and Alexis Smith as Phyllis.
The book, written by James Goldman, is about the reunion of showgirls, modeled after the Ziegfield Follies, on the eve of the demolition of their old theater. The ladies are all of a certain age, or older, and some are accompanied by husbands, who either were or weren’t their first choice, making for broken hearts and fantasies of what might have been. It is essentially the mother of all 40th high school reunions.

While written decades ago, Follies feels timely in a city where marriage remains too often a compromise of professional ambition and emotional honesty, with the former winning the draw. In fact, two of the characters, played powerfully by Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines, are in a political marriage rocked by betrayal and bitterness.

Their love sags under the weight of the public face and the private truths. The back and forth of their dialogue hits home here, with so much in the news about the marital tribulations of semi-locals Maria Shriver (Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Anne Sinclair (Mrs. Dominique Strauss-Kahn). And they are only the most recent examples.

I’m not a theater critic. I can’t tell you whether the show is great or not great, only that the Kennedy Center audiences appear rewarded and the critics have been very friendly. I like that it is staged in the smaller Eisenhower Theater rather than the cavernous Opera House. It’s a good fit. It feels like a Broadway house.
Ron Raines as Ben and Bernadette Peters as Sally. Photo: Joan Marcus. Jan Maxwell as Phyllis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jennifer Foote, Danny Burstein, and Kiira Schmidt in Follies. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Elaine Paige in Follies. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In a cast of well-known Broadway veterans, the star is Bernadette Peters, the Tony-winning actress most often associated with Sondheim. At 63 years old she is playing a character of 49 and carries it off with grace. She also owns the emotional high point of the show: the Act II performance of “Losing My Mind,” one of the most tear-jerking heartbreak ballads of all time, up there with “The Man Who Got Away” and “The Way We Were.” As with the late Dorothy Collins in the original, Peters simply stands and delivers.

Also on the marquee are Elaine Paige (she gets to belt out “I’m Still Here”), Danny Burstein, Linda Lavin (her showstopper is “Broadway Baby”), Terri White, and the one and only Regine. Yes, the French chanteuse and, as her Playbill bio says, “inventor of the discotheque.” The show is fun that way, a little bit of everything for everyone. Maxwell, by the way, has her own showstopper with “Could I Leave You?” Could that be Maria Shriver’s song of the month, or what?
Eric Schaeffer and Stephen Sondheim at Saturday’s opening of Follies (photo via Washington Post/Scott Suchman).
The director is the Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer who, like Peters, is becoming the go-to for Sondheim revivals. In addition to Follies, his resume, so far, includes Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion, Into the Woods, Company, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, and Pacific Overtures. Schaeffer, with some assist from Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein, is putting Washington on the theater map for those and so many other notable productions.

The Kennedy Center production of Follies runs for three more weeks, and a quick look at the online box office link showed some tickets still available. Now, only one question remains: will it head north to Broadway? There are rumors.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.