Monday, November 28, 2011

Visiting New York for the Holidays? See 'Follies,' Skip 'War Horse'

If you're a real fan of the Broadway musical theater visiting New York over the Christmas holidays, I have three words for you:

Go see "Follies."

And maybe a fourth word: Soon.

Soon because, alas, the current revival, a big and gorgeous production at the Marriott Marquis theater on Broadway, is languishing, and my guess is that it's in danger of closing fairly soon. According to the weekly box office tabulations in Variety, "Follies" is selling only about 60 percent of the seats at the Marquis, a theater with a capacity of about 1,600. That includes the cut-rate seats that are sold each day at the discount TKTS center. (Meaning you can score a cheap ticket, by the way).

[Update, Dec. 2--Attendance down to around 53 percent, Follies has posted its closing notice: January 22].

"Follies" is Stephen Sondheim's rousing and heart-breaking tribute to the great arc of the Broadway musical from the days of the Merry Widow through the Ziegfeld Follies and onward into the great span of classical musical comedy of the 50s and 60s. It's also a sad evocation of ennui and loss.

As such, it's problematic from a marketing standpoint, because enjoying a "Follies" in 2011, even one as splendid as this one, probably requires at least a modicum of appreciation for the history and the repertoire of the great Broadway musical. it also requires an appreciation of Sondheim's unique musicality.

Not an easy sell in these days of "Jersey Boys" and "The Book of Mormon."

I never saw the original "Follies," which opened in 1971 and ran for a modest 522 performances. But I'll bet this revival at least stands up to the original, and in some ways surpasses it.

An obvious problem with the show is that Sondheim, even at his most melodic, is something of an acquired taste. While the show has one smashing song after another, none of those songs are what you might call Broadway standards, like the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, for example.

When my wife and I took our seats at the Marquis, we marveled at how the theater was dressed, with faux dusty, ragged curtains and peeling, broken ornamental work, to resemble the setting of the show itself -- a theater that once was the scene of the glory days of a Ziegfeld Follies-type extravaganza. The show's conceit is that the grand old theater is scheduled for demolition the next day, and the Flo Ziegfeld-like impresario has assembled the former Follies stars and some showgirls, and the stage-door Johnnies whom they unhappily married, to a party on stage to commemorate the last night of the theater. Meanwhile, other showgirls -- ghosts -- drift ethereally through the scenes like Ziegfeld girls lost in time.

I knew the revival had problems the night my wife and I attended about a month ago, when I saw that about a fifth of the house even then was empty. A middle-aged couple took their seats behind us and began muttering over their playbills.

"I never heard of any of these songs," the man said.

"They were written by the same man who wrote 'Phantom of the Opera,' the lady said authoritatively.

I'm glad Sondheim didn't hear that one.

"Follies" has grand songs. It's also the only musical I can think of that fronts a show-stopper as soon as the curtain rises, "Beautiful Girls." One after the other, Sondheim pounds away with great musical numbers, each judiciously positioned to evoke a mood or an era: "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," and "Ah Paris" and "Broadway Baby" and "In Buddy's Eyes" and the spectacularly witty "I'm Still Here" -- and that's before the intermission. After intermission comes another spectacularly witty number, "Could I Leave You?" as well as the beautiful divertissment-like "Follies" numbers that take up most of the second act with spectacular Broadway staging and dancing.

Some quibbles: The star, Bernadette Peters, sings and dances with verve. But sadly, she simply no longer has the pipes to do justice to Sondheim's difficult, desperate and haunting ballad, "Losing My Mind." On the other hand, Peters has the true Broadway moxie to take that last sad note, an E-flat, up an octave from where it's usually sung, and hold it, unwaveringly, for two long bars -- as if to say, "Oh yeah? Well how about this?"

Elaine Paige, as Carlotta, got a tremendous ovation for her "I'm Still Here," but I thought she failed to enunciate clearly enough to really sell those hilarious Sondheim lyrics, like these:

"I've been through Reno
I've been through Beverly Hills
And I'm here
Reefers and vino
Rest cures, religion, and pills
And I'm here
Been called a pinko commie tool
Got through it stinko by my pool
I should have gone to an acting school
That seems clear
Still someone said, "She's sincere."
So I'm here."

And incidentally, in "Could I Leave You?" who else but Sondheim would rhyme "spinet" with "Wait a goddamn minute?"

Brilliant as it is, "Follies" has always been a tough sell, partly because the two main male characters are unlikable -- but that's kind of the the point. They're supposed to be jerks. The show is about loss and despair and longing and resignation, and when the curtain comes down, the theater itself feels as doomed as the show says it is.

After the ovations at the Marquis, we saw that Mr. and Mrs. Phantom had vacated their seats behind us some time earlier. As we left the theater, which is housed within the huge Times Square Marriott Marquis hotel, we passed by a long line of business travelers who were queued to register for some dreadful corporate conference whose placards said things like "Administrative Outcomes and How to Prioritize, Room 634." This was at 11 in the evening, too.

I went out into the lights of Times Square whistling not some great tune from "Follies" but rather, thanks to the wretched assembly of corporate drudges we'd just passed through, the dirge-like "Sure-Flo" song that Catherine O'Hara performs at the end of Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" -- when she's at the end of her road, at her husband's catheter booth, at that sad trade show for medical device salesmen.


We saw another show during our trip to New York, "War Horse," which has received terrific reviews.

Not from me it hasn't.

I ignore most film and theater critics. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes not. One thing I have learned, though, is when you see a play that is as invincibly and unalterably bad as "War Horse" is, you know that any critic who has praised it is a fatuous twit who can't be trusted to report on the weather, let alone the theater. I won't name names here.

"War Horse" is, essentially, a big puppet show. That is, the main character, a horse named Joey, is rendered -- quite skillfully -- as a large mechanical puppet whose movements are controlled on stage by three puppeteers. There are a few other horses in the show, similarly activated. The puppets do in fact move like real horses, and my wife and I are horse people who know how a horse moves.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a boy in some dreadful English village, just before the start of World War I, who lovingly trains Joey the horse, but then loses Joey when the English Army, looking like a community-theater troupe specializing in Monty Python military sketches, marches into town looking for horses for the cavalry, to go defeat the Huns.

Joey is enlisted. Torn from Joey, the desperate lad, naturally, joins the Army and troops over to the Great War in search of his beloved lost steed.

The Germans, this being 1914, go to war not with horses, but with great iron tanks. The noble cavalry horse as an instrument of war has consequently seen his day. If there is one great moment in "War Horse," it's the scene where the mighty but war-battered stallion Joey rears up in a spectacular, heart-stopping levade against the monstrous cold steel of a German tank that rises to meet the horse. Joey dies in the horrible roar of beast meeting bellowing iron.

At least Joey died, and the show ended this way, when I first saw "War Horse" a few years ago at its initial run in London. But in New York, unaccountably, Joey lives and returns to the now bucolic English village, which is supposed to be somewhere in Somerset, for a happy ending that clearly confused at least the children in the audience, if not the adults who had brought them.

I had prevailed on my wife to see "War Horse" in New York because I had been so impressed with the puppetry skills that animated the puppet-horses on stage in the London version. But alas, the puppetry is not enough. I had forgotten how basically silly the play itself is.

Nor is the theater in New York a good setting. The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where War Horse is still selling out nightly, is actually a terrible theater. Its acoustics stink, even after an expensive acoustical remodeling some years ago. The Vivian Beaumont lobby is depressing, in that it resembles a tired old suburban cineplex, except that in the tired old suburban cineplex, unlike the Beaumont, they still shampoo the carpets.

Puppetry aside, the play is limp, lachrymose, lacking in any sign of vitality except as shown by ticket sales. Boy loves horse, horse goes to war and dies. Except in the New York version, I mean.

The boy, Billy, seems to be a kind but illiterate simpleton, a state of being that might have allowed for some dramatic creativity, were it not for the fact that the author, Nick Stafford, adapting a book by Michael Morpurgo, does not seem to realize that the lad is a halfwit.

The lad's mother is similarly witless and at least as annoying. The father, a loud drunk who sells the boy's horse to the Army, seems to have no dramatic purpose other than to affect the move of the unfortunate Joey from the English countryside to the war-torn Continent.

There also is a mechanical goose-puppet that flaps around the village, nipping at various people, delighting the more easily distracted in the audience.

And there's a small group of singers and string-pluckers who turn up at times to provide lilting musical commentary on the proceedings, like a troupe of confused Irish step-dancers who got off at the wrong train station and stayed around to have a few drinks while making remarks about the locals.

For some reason, everybody in the village talks like they're in Ireland, and I guess the pastoral portion of the play that is set in England could have been just as easily have been set in Ireland, were it not for the somewhat ambiguous position the Irish took at the time, 1914, on how energetically they might choose to side with the Brits against the Huns.

By the way, "War Horse" has been lavishly praised by theater critics (yeah, that one again) and it won the Tony Award this year for best play. It's also being made into a movie by Spielberg.

Remember, also, that Pearl S. Buck once won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Anyway, as I said, Broadway theater is well and truly dead, despite the bounty of the box office. Or because of it.


No comments: