“Why am I here? This is crazy!”
That’s what Sally sings in “Don’t Look at Me” in FOLLIES — and what I might have thought while sitting in the auditorium at Westfield High School waiting for the house lights to dim.
Here’s where director Daniel Devlin and choreographer Samantha Simpson were about to unveil their production of FOLLIES – one that would be populated solely by teenagers.
You may wonder why I’ve chosen to tell you about this. I still remember a Phyllis Diller joke: “I flew an airline so cheap that instead of showing a movie, they put on a high school play.”
She should have been so lucky to see this one. You, too. What a shame it only played three performances. But hasn’t every production of FOLLIES, starting with the quintessential 1971 original, run much shorter than it deserved?
Well, all right, the atrocious 2001 Broadway revival would have done us all a favor if it had it closed after the dress rehearsal. But even that misfire hasn’t kept others from trying. The Stones – Phyllis and Ben, that is — have lasted in the musical theater world almost as long as The Stones have endured in the rock world.
You might prefer that I use this column to review a genuine Great Big Broadway Show. No, I’d rather praise kids who achieved the impossible rather than report in detail how inane ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE is. Maybe Dmitri Weismann and his former employees “lie about ourselves a little,” but I needn’t fib about the Westfield High Drama Theatre Department; this FOLLIES amazed at every turn.
That it would be something special could be inferred just from a glance into the orchestra pit. There resided 27 musicians – 27! – 14 students and 13 pros. Musical director John Brzozowski had even a harp at his disposal. And despite this dense score and so much incidental music needed under scenes, the orchestra performed magnificently.
The attention to detail was clear from the pre-show no-cell-phones announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and BEAUTIFUL girls …” Clever, no?
And speaking of that glorious opening song, when Matt Siroty’s Roscoe strongly sang “You may lose control,” it wasn’t a case of “may” – I actually did. Seeing teens slowly walk down the stairway in a way that added decades to their years showed how meticulous Devlin and Simpson were in insisting that these kids age.
To see a girl wearing a Weismann Girls sash that said “1918” had particular resonance, for that is of course a full century ago. Even Doris Eaton Travis, the Ziegfeld Girl who lived to 106, wouldn’t be around today, so those sashes helped to establish that Devlin and Simpson had kept their FOLLIES in 1971. It’s not just that the students weren’t born then; most of their PARENTS weren’t yet on the scene, either.
So there was great irony in hearing such lines as “I feel like I’m 19 again,” “I haven’t danced in 30 years,” “the decades fly” and “I’d give it up to be 25 again.” Although the students haven’t remotely had that much life experience, you’d have never known it from the way they said these lines and others with absolute conviction. Nary a wink was directed to the audience.
Speaking of audiences, FOLLIES can be confusing to uninitiated. Theatergoers are well within their rights to assume that those showgirls dressed in black and white at show’s start are actually there in reality. There’s an onus on Sally, the first to arrive at this reunion, to let the audience realize that she doesn’t see these figures – which means they must be ghosts. Emma Shakal conveyed this beautifully and brilliantly.
Shakal excelled, too, when dealing with her long-lasting feelings for Ben, husband to Phyllis, her former best friend. Giddiness, love and admiration were all grist for her mill. Compare that to the panic that invaded her face when her husband Buddy said that he planned to stop traveling for work and stay at home. Between this and the indifferent way Ben ultimately treated her, Shakal put heat and fire into her torch song “Losing My Mind.”
Goldman’s book has Buddy pour out his fears and inadequacies to anyone at the party who’ll listen. Julian Mazzola excelled at revealing more than he expected to at every turn. Mazzola also let us see his second thoughts for divulging that love hasn’t seen them through.
At first, Kimberly Zimmermann’s Phyllis seemed to have more acid than a DieHard battery. She made clear that Phyllis doesn’t want Ben, but doesn’t want Sally to have him either. And yet, the distraught look on Zimmermann’s face made us care and worry for her after Ben had growled “I don’t want one more day with you.” Phyllis eventually comes to the conclusion that when she was young “I was terrific.” Zimmermann proved the point. Who knows? Maybe this will be the second Zimmermann to create a splash on Broadway. (Granted, the first one who did wound up changing her last name to Merman …)
Zimmermann certainly looked sharp. Costume supervisor Christine Hahn made sure that she had a sleek green dress that was far more apt than the dowdy atrocity that Janie Dee wore in the recent London revival.
Granted, of the 14 productions of FOLLIES I’ve seen dating back to the original, this was the first where Ben wore braces on his teeth. But Matt Meixner brought such gravitas to his dialogue and songs that anyone would overlook the appendage. Besides, his future million dollar smile will serve him well in his many, many upcoming lead roles in musicals.
Also impressive was Connor Abrams as Weismann who looked paternally happy to see everyone again and proud of himself for arranging this “first – and last – reunion.” Olivia Ebel, as the eldest Weismann “Girl,” worked her cane as expertly as her voice in “One More Kiss” (over which, I’m happy to say, the audience went wild).
From the assured way that Emma Herber’s Solange sang “Ah, Paree!” you’d think that she’d genuinely been to all the places she’d catalogued. Abigail Connolly’s Hattie claimed she’d “even play the maid to be in a show,” but this lass has so much talent that directors would be more inclined to make her Maid Marian in any of those Robin Hood musicals that have been circling Broadway.
Margaret Bergin astonished as Carlotta, for her “I’m Still Here” owed nothing to anyone who’s done the song over the last 46 years. She made it completely her own – especially when she reached “Then you career from career to career” – for she virtually made us see the light bulb go off in her head as she realized that she could use “career” as a verb as well as a noun.
Too many times when high schoolers are required to play older characters, the make-up artists overdo the gray in their hair. Not Emily Bloomfield and Lindsay Sherman. How smart they were to judiciously use a salt-and-pepper approach; it showed that they really took to heart Ben’s lyric about “turning gray.” And bully and congrats to the FOURTEEN kids on the make-up crew who were able to age the young performers without making them look foolish.
Few musicals make as many demands on lighting as FOLLIES. Devlin knew he needed pros and got Lisa and Michael Kimmel of Sharp Edge Lighting to do the yeoman’s work. Then, though, students were required to take over and execute, which they did without a single flaw – even at this, their first performance.
Abby Rothenberg pounced on stage as Stella Deems, ready to do “Who’s That Woman?” but warning the others “I’m not making an ass of myself alone.” No, what she and the old and new showgirls made was a miracle of “The Mirror Number,” as it’s colloquially called. It was interrupted by applause not once, but twice.
And yet, the greatest hand of the night unexpectedly went to “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” where Zimmermann shone with a perfect set of back-up boys (and, yes, a few girls). These were Simpson’s crowning jewels, but there were enough in the production to fill two tiaras.
As for the dialogue, the lines have plenty of ellipses, and the cast perfectly timed every dot-dot-dot.
By the way, when I made arrangements to see the show, I asked for one ticket; when I arrived, however, two ducats were in my envelope. Yes, having an empty seat next to me does mean a little more room to stretch out, but perhaps someone else desperately wanted to see FOLLIES and couldn’t get in.
I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone from seeing this masterpiece, so I asked the box-office manager “Are you sold out?” – to which she said “We’re about 50% full.”
Yup, that’s FOLLIES for you. Half-empty houses, la-la-la. Someday the whole world may catch up with the Goldman-Sondheim masterpiece and learn what these Westfield High students already know. To quote a very different line from “Don’t Look at Me,” “I’m so glad I came!”