Broadway's Stephen Sondheim revival looks at life's 'Follies'

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Popular entertainment so often worships youth who haven't had the time to hone their art. Then there's "Follies" the valentine of a musical to women of a certain age, who know how to work a stage.

These are women who have lived, and as the characters and as actors you can feel they know how lucky they are to stand center stage at Broadway's Marquis Theatre and belt Stephen Sondheim's music.

The theater and the stage are shrouded with black material to bring us into an old theater, about to be razed for a parking lot. But before it goes, there's one last night, one final party for this grand old theater, which between the two world wars, hosted the follies. The women come from all over to see one another, and confront their ghosts. Younger actresses play the chorines from decades ago.

Though an ensemble, Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell headline.

Peters remains luminescent. At intermission, glancing at the Playbill we're reminded of just how much of Broadway she has done -- "A Little Night Music" "Gypsy" "Annie Get Your Gun" -- and though she looks far younger, Peters is 63.

As Sally Durant Plummer, Peters projects vulnerability and a sweetness that can't be matched. And when, in a purple velvet dress, she reaches somewhere deep into her soul and cries while singing "Losing My Mind" it's a reminder as to why Peters is Broadway royalty.

Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, and who was terrific in the farce "Lend Me a Tenor," is a force of nature here. Her big number, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," is tremendous fun, but it's the drama of her role that haunts. Phyllis and Sally were both in love with Benjamin Stone (Ron Raines). Jan married him and he became incredibly successful. They dine with ambassadors and are patrons of the arts. At least superficially, they lead a cultured, rich life. He cheats on her, and it appears to be a loveless marriage.

Screen shot 2011-09-22 at 4.56.51 PM.pngSally married Buddy Plummer (Danny Burstein) and moved to the Midwest. He's a traveling salesman and has another woman. Their two sons are grown, in San Francisco, and Sally pines for her first love, Ben, and the life she might have had. She's also a bit mad, possibly with grief, dashed dreams or life just taking its toll. 

During the reunion, the two marriages look as if they will fray. But meanwhile, the women each get their turn in the spotlight.

Elaine Paige, a star of London theater, sings "I'm Still Here" and proves why she's a trouper. At this particular performance, the sound went off - she kept going - and the lights faltered. And yes, she was still there. She flashed a huge smile to the control crew, and never lost a beat. Naturally when Paige  finished, the crowd went wild.

The show is worth seeing for so many performances and Terri White ("Ain't Misbehavin' ") has more fun than is allowed in many places when she tears up the stage singing and dancing to "Who's That Woman?"

TV audiences who know Mary Beth Peil from Jackie on "The Good Wife" will be delighted to see her as French bombshell, Solange LaFitte, who sings, "Ah, Paris!"
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus