Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sondheim Follies of 2007

I'm always surprised when Sondheim's music is referred to as cold and brainy—which is almost every time it's referred to. It's never struck me that way; it's not as if we're talking about dry modernist compositions after all, or if his shows don't concern themselves with matters of the heart. What Sondheim does is mostly avoid cheesy sentiment, and that alone passes for glacial detachment in the overheated world of musical theater.

The cliché about Sondheim was trotted out yet again in the Times' review of the Encores! version of his 1971 masterpiece, Follies: "The brittle shield of ice that was once widely believed to encase anything Stephen Sondheim wrote continues to melt apace…this “Follies” definitively tears off the stigma of cerebral chilliness that was attached to it when it opened 35 years ago." But it's easy to melt an inexistent shield of ice. I mean, who would ever think that the heartbreaking "Losing My Mind," probably the best-known song from Follies, is emotionally distant? And that number is far from being an oddity in the Sondheim catalog.

Anyway, on with the show. It's plain that the Follies a few thousand people were lucky enough to see this weekend was exceptional. Casey Nicholaw did a bang-up job with the staging and choreography, and special props to Ken Billington's extraordinary lighting, which made the ghostly younger cast appropriately monochromatic, even when they happened to step up to center stage to interact with their older selves; the effect was akin to a b&w movie character suddenly being dumped into a color picture.

But what really made the production exceptional were the performers, notably Donna Murphy (betraying hairline cracks in Phyllis's regal composure), Victoria Clark (particularly touching when evoking Sally's wasted life and heartbreak), Christine Baranski (our most naturally gifted comedienne, nailing all of Carlotta's lines and doing an impressive job—save for those tricky last notes—on "I'm Still Here") and JoAnne Worley (a scenery-chomping ringleader in the fabulous "Who's That Woman"?). While the number didn't get the most heated applause at the performance I saw, I loved Clark's version of "Losing My Mind," which I even preferred to Barbara Cook's (this is akin to saying that the earth is flat to hardcore showtune fiends).

Someone on All That Chat theorized that the current crop of female musical-theater stars may be the strongest ever, and I find myself in agreement. Of course there have been tremendous powerhouses in the past, but now the numbers are impressive: We can see the likes of Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, Bernadette Peters, Christine Ebersole and Tonya Pinkins on a regular basis. (I'm not a huge fan of Audra McDonald but she definitely has her admirers. ) Add a whole bunch of young 'uns working their way up through the ranks, such as Anika Noni Rose, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Laura Bell Bundy and Leslie Kritzer, and we're in really good shape. Now if only we could get exciting new composers to match… but please don't bring up Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon.

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