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NY Theater Reviews

Photo: Joan Marcus

Speak, Memory

By Mervyn Rothstein

The strongest vision from this season's all-too-brief revival of Follies?...

The strongest vision from this season's all-too-brief revival of Follies? Donna Murphy, her voice and face the quintessence of anger and sadness as she confronts her husband in "Could I Leave You?"

The good news is that the new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman 's Follies - the original opened on Broadway 36 years ago - really nailed what the show is all about, with a brilliant cast that made it clear that Follies is among the best of all possible musicals. The unhappy news is that the 2007 Follies was part of City Center's "Encores!" semi-staged concert series, so it ran for a mere five days. Which means that it is already, like its characters' often wistfully remembered pasts, only a memory.

But what a glorious memory.

Memory, of course, is the primary theme of Follies the way we were then, the way we are now, the tricks our recollections play on us, the decisions made when "everything was possible" - decisions that seemed so tentative and haphazard, so subject to quick and easy change, and yet before we realize it, as one character says, are "chiseled in marble." These ideas, the follies we often make of our lives, the roads we don't take and perhaps wish we had, took center stage at "Encores!."

The musical is set in 1971, the year it opened, and takes place at the 30th anniversary reunion - a mere 30 years, now less than the distance between us and 1971 - of the chorus girls from the Weissman "Follies." The reunion is a time to "lie about ourselves a little," as Weissman himself says, to look at photos of ourselves from back then and, as Murphy declares, "think somebody's put a stranger in my scrapbook."

The main characters are Buddy and Sally and Ben and Phyllis (Murphy's role), long-married couples who met back in 1941, when Sally and Phyllis were chorines and roommates and Ben and Buddy waited backstage at the Weissman Theater for "The Girls Upstairs." And it is their tale, of love found and lost, or never even located, of failed marriages and the lies we need in order to live, that primes Follies.

But Follies is also about youth and age, the faded visions of yesteryear. And, most important, it is about Sondheim's score - music and lyrics that are among the most splendid the Broadway stage has ever heard. Happily, the City Center cast and its director and choreographer - Casey Nicholaw of Drowsy Chaperone fame - stopped the show with almost every number.Arthur Rubin, a former theater executive who first appeared in Follies in the now legendary 1985 Lincoln Center concert version, was back 22 years later, his powerful tenor voice intact for "Beautiful Girls." Mimi Hines, who replaced Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl more than 40 years ago, proved she is still very much a "Broadway Baby." Christine Baranski took the Sondheim standard "I'm Still Here" and added a subtle humor to its potent survivalist sentiments.

Victor Garber as Ben and Victoria Clark as Sally were pictures of regret at choices not