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"Follies"

June 15 - June 23, 2002

 

 

 

 

"Duke’s raspy earnestness and old-school grit may win you over (as they did me)..."
--The Los Angeles Times

 

 

 

Hollywood Reporter:
With music and lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman, "Follies" (which opened on Broadway in 1971 and opened the Shubert Theatre in Century City in 1972) skillfully blends the glitz and glamour of the older Ziegfeld Follies and the more somber and probing musicals of our own times. And though the current production at the Wadsworth may be short on sequins and feathers (a Ziegfeld trademark), it's still compelling and at times even a bit haunting.

All takes place in a darkened Broadway theater -- once the home of the Weissman Follies -- where impresario Dimitri Weissman (the capable Warren Berlinger) has invited all of his former follies members for one last party before the theater will be torn down for a parking lot. Credit Ray Klausen for the set (complete with staircase), Randy Gardell for the lush costumes, Tom Ruzika for the moody lighting, Philip G. Allen for the sound, Gerald Sternbach for the musical direction, Kay Cole for the choreography and Arthur Allan Seidelman for the savvy stage direction.

Soon the guests start to arrive, including Sally Durant Plummer (Vikki Carr), her husband, Buddy (Harry Groener), and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Patty Duke) and her husband, Ben (Bob Gunton). While Sally and Phyllis were in the Weissman Follies a generation ago, Buddy and Ben were best friends. All are terrific.

Along with both couples (and with most of the follies performers) are youthful and real-life shadows or ghosts of them as they were 25 years ago: young, brash and full of ideals. Jean Louisa Kelly (Young Sally), Tia Reibling (Young Phyllis), Kevin Earley (Young Ben) and Austin Miller (Young Buddy) are first-rate.

Sondheim and Goldman simply force the two older warring and disillusioned couples to confront their once-youthful dreams and optimism. Ultimately, through song and dance, the older and wiser couples learn about their own foibles and follies -- before they go off into the early morning sunlight.

While Phyllis and Ben have become Manhattan rich and famous, Sally and Buddy live somewhere in Arizona, where he sells oil rig equipment. Over the years they have lost touch, but naive Sally has always loved the self-indulgent and acerbic Ben, and she coyly sings "Don't Look at Me" to him at the Weissman party. Carr is wonderful, especially in the second act when she sings her torchy lament "Losing My Mind." And Phyllis scores well with her caustic question of "Could I Leave You?" to Ben, as does Buddy when he sings and dances about his affair with Margie in "The Right Girl."

As for the rest of the veteran all-star cast of "Follies," it's absolutely stellar: Donna McKechnie (who gloriously sings "I'm Still Here"), Amanda McBroom (who jubilantly sings "Ah, Paris"), the inimitable Carole Cook (who belts "Broadway Baby"), Carol Lawrence, Stella Stevens, Justine Johnson (who originated the role of Heidi Schiller in the original "Follies"), Mary Jo Catlett, Billy Barnes, Grover Dale, Liz Torres, Carol Swarbrick and Ken Page, who, as tenor Roscoe, introduces the entire group of aging stars of the follies with the ironic and schmaltzy "Beautiful Girls."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Variety:
“I don’t want to get old,” cries Patty Duke as Phyllis, the cynical ex-Follies performer attending a final reunion with her contemporaries. This outburst of emotion forcefully dramatizes the universal core of Stephen Sondheim’s musical cult classic at the Wadsworth Theater-the pain of coping with age, lost illusions and poor choices. James Goldman’s book is still structurally off-balance, with an overlong first at and too many characters, but director Arthur Allan Seidelman, working with one of Sondheim’s greatest scores, expertly preserves the bitter, biting nature of the material while adding a layer of sensitivity that turns these narcissistic, self-pitying protagonists into fully rounded human beings.

As the show opens, the theater that once housed the Weissman Follies is slated for destruction, and former Weissman showgirls, meet, bond and battle at a reunion party. The principals are acid-tongued Phyllis (Duke) and naďve Sally (Vikki Carr), former friends whose relationship is complicated by Sally’s continuing love for Phyllis’ husband, Ben (Bob Gunton). Sally’s obsession with Ben tears away at her marriage to the philandering Buddy (Harry Groener).

The angst exhibited by this quartet provides the story’s anchor, and Sondheim heightens these conflicts by spotlighting other Follies girls and their memories. Carole Cook avoids any suggestion of cuteness and makes “Broadway Baby” a harshly truthful tale of tired feet and relentless ambition.

Donna McKechnie sings the definitive survivor song, “I’m still Here” with a sane, rueful attitude that minimizes battle-scarred toughness but adds poignancy. Justine Johnson, who appeared in the original Broadway production, fares less well with a Sigmund Romberg-type number, “One More Kiss,” and “Listen To the Rain on the Roof” temporarily slows story momentum. 
The production’s biggest experiment is Duke’s Phyllis, since Duke has admitted her lack of background as singer and dancer. But Seidelman’s gamble pays off, as Duke invests the character with strength and a diamond-hard edge. When she wavers vocally, her formidable acting skills take over. Her rendition of “Should I Leave You?” has the required venom and spite, and she’s even more at home with the tongue twisting “Story of Lucy and Jessie.”

Gunton, a frequent Sondheim interpreter (“A Little Light Music,” “Sweeny Todd,” “Into the Woods”), is magnificent as the jaded Ben, whether reflecting on “The Road You Didn’t Take” or breaking down before our eyes in “Live, Laugh, Love.”

A more offbeat casting choice is Carr as the clueless Sally, blindly believing her love of 30 years still retains affection for her. To borrow a Sondheim line, “Someone said she’s sincere and she’s here.” As an actress, Carr is short on shading and nuance, but her open sweetness is right for the part, and she displays star quality on “Losing My Mind.” 
Groener nimbly executes Kay Cole’s clever, inventive steps on “The Right Girl,” flashing a huge grin that contrasts chillingly with his darker side.

Amanda McBroom, Stella Stevens and Carol Lawrence have too little to do, but Liz Torres is a powerhouse with “Who’s that Woman?” Kevin Early, Jean Louisa Kelly, Austin Miller and Tia Reibling are outstanding as the younger Ben, Sally, Buddy, and Phyllis. Tom Ruzika’s lighting of the past and present-day couples enhances the real and fantasy elements of their scenes. Gerald Sternbach’s musicians faultlessly render a challenging and difficult score.

 

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Los Angeles Times

Can-Duke attitude 
Reprise! mounts a stripped-down but talent-packed production of 'Follies'

By Evan Henerson 

 

     DRIVING DOWN Ventura Boulevard a few months ago, actress Patty Duke answered her cell phone, which, she claims, never rings. On the line was Duke's longtime friend, director Arthur Allan Seidelman, proposing a meeting."

     He said, 'I'm directing "Follies" at the Wadsworth, and I want you to be Phyllis,'" recalls Duke, who promptly reminded the director that she couldn't sing or dance. "He said, 'You will.' So, indeed, we went to dinner, and he's the best salesman in America.

     "Somebody's got a lot of guts," she continues with a laugh. "I have often looked at the script and thought, 'Oh, boy, Arthur, better you than me.'" She's speaking about the whole folly of doing "Follies." 

     Conventional wisdom has it that when casting Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's tale about leggy Ziegfeld girls--young and old--you don't necessarily enlist a petite, non-singing and non-dancing actress as one of your leads. Then again, the same wisdom says you don't even try to wrestle down a beast like "Follies" unless you have months of rehearsal time and the deepest of budgets.

     Seidelman has neither. 

     Reprise!, which is producing the "Follies" revival opening Saturday, offered a scant two weeks of rehearsal time. That's 14 days to bring together a giant cast, figure out how to partially replicate some serious technical opulence and deliver a show that musical-theater types look at with feelings just short of worship.

     Indeed, in April 2001, when The New York Times asked director Harold Prince whether he planned to check out the Roundabout Theatre's well-heeled, star-studded Broadway revival of the show, Prince had to pass.

     "Nothing is like 'Follies,'" said Prince, the co-director and producer of the musical's first production in 1971. "The show meant a great deal to me, as much as anything I've ever worked on. I think I probably did as good work as I'll ever do, so I didn't want to see anyone tamper with it."

     The Reprise! production boasts a lineup that includes Duke, Vikki Carr, Bob Gunton, Harry Groener and Carol Lawrence. And a game-to-go Seidelman finds himself in no way intimidated.

     "I've always wanted to do it," says Seidelman, who has directed five previous Reprise! shows. "It's a brilliant work, life-affirming in the deepest sense of the word and just tremendously entertaining. And it has show-stopping number after show-stopping number."

     For God's sakes, who would you rather hear singing 'Broadway Baby' than Carole Cook? And if anybody has earned the right to sing 'I'm Still Here,' it's Donna McKechnie."

     In "Follies," two former Ziegfeld girls (played by Duke and Carr) and their husbands--all in their 50s--attend a reunion at a theater slated for demolition. As they look back over their past choices and mistakes, with Sondheimian regret and bitterness, they come face to face with younger versions of themselves.

     Songs include "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," "In Buddy's Eyes," "Live, Laugh, Love" and "Could I Leave You?" Experimenting with all sorts of musical forms, Sondheim wrote "pastiche" numbers to re-create the music of the era. The score has musical nods to the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

     "I think it's one of his most ambitious scores because of the various elements he tries to do," says musical director Gerald Sternbach. "Sondheim's lyrics always play at different levels."

     The original production was budgeted at close to $800,000--a whopping figure in 1971. Even after running more than a year on Broadway, "Follies" lost its entire investment. The Broadway company then went out on tour with "Follies," ending up being the opening attraction of the Shubert Theatre in Century City. Reprise! producers dreamed of having their "Follies" close the now-shuttered Shubert, but it didn't happen.

     The Wadsworth, says Seidelman, is an able venue. Seidelman staged "Hair" at the theater for Reprise! a year ago. That show was much less complicated technically, but the director feels the same theater will more than fit the bill." 'Follies' is supposed to take place in a theater that's going to be torn down. Now, the Wadsworth is not going to be torn down, but it's not the Royal Opera House either," says Seidelman. "This will have more sets than most Reprise! shows have. It's not ornate. It's simplified, but essentially, it's right for the piece."

     Less flexible is the rehearsal time. Reprise! is able to attract name talent because its productions have short rehearsal periods and two-week runs. Given sufficient notice from Seidelman, Duke spent two months training with a vocal and dance coach in northern Idaho, where she lives.

     "There were times when it looked like I was going to have to call them up and say, 'You know what? I've made a mistake. I can't do this,' " said Duke. "Sure enough, next lesson, I would have a little breakthrough."

     Groener, the former "Dear John" star and frequent "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" guest (as the Mayor), had been courted for several past Reprise! shows, but the timing was never right. This time, it was, says Groener, who works frequently on stage in the Southland.

     "Whenever you get a chance to do a Sondheim piece, you should do it," says Groener, who did a stint in the composer's "Sunday in the Park With George" on Broadway. "This was a part I should do."

     Although "Follies" gets periodic revivals (the downtown L.A.-based East West Players did the show in 2000), Sternbach expects the show to be seen even less frequently. After all, he says, the play demands actors who can evoke an earlier age, and musical theater seems to be breeding a different type of actor.

     "The type of performer that the show is about and pays tribute and homage to ... I don't think that performer is going to exist after all of these people are gone," says Sternbach. "I don't know if at some point we're going to have 'Follies' with Sarah Michelle Gellar. It's just not going to happen."

 

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Los Angeles Times

Fun or Folly--She's Willing to Try
She may be a theater veteran, but Patty Duke had never sung or danced on stage. Until now.
By Irene Lacher

 

     Outside the Madeline Clark rehearsal studio on Burbank Boulevard, flowers tumble down white trellises and a cool pool of water beckons weary actors on their breaks. It certainly looks like a mini-arcadia, but here, as elsewhere in Hollywood adjacent, things aren't always as they seem. Many of the blooms are real, but they're augmented with plastic impostors. This may be the only garden in town that needs to be both watered and dusted. 
     Usual expectations have a rough time of it inside the rehearsal hall too. It's the first cast reading of a new production of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," which opens today, and people are getting to know one another. A petite woman with a short crop of wheat-colored hair walks over to the three young actresses sitting behind her. "Hello," she says, extending her hand. "I'm Patty Duke." 
     The stage manager stands up and delivers a blizzard of announcements, then directs cast members to program his number into their cell phones. Duke looks up in mock consternation. "I'm still learning how to sing and dance," she says. 
     Wait, didn't Duke already know how to dance the minuet? Or was that her Scottish "identical cousin" Cathy, the television alter ego who helped Duke blaze an indelible groove in boomer consciousness with "The Patty Duke Show" from 1963 to 1966 and countless reruns since? Duke went on to reign as the queen of TV movies, with a whopping 76 to her credit. 
     But the TV movie industry is barely surviving "Survivor" and its clones, not to mention game shows that mint millionaires. 
     So what else can a girl do but sing Sondheim? 
     Indeed, at the lofty age of 55, Duke is making her debut as a singer-dancer in the Reprise! production of "Follies," which runs through June 23 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. The show also stars Vikki Carr, Bob Gunton, Harry Groener and Donna McKechnie, as well as Jack Carter, Carol Lawrence and Justine Johnston, who appeared in the original production 30 years ago. 
     "Follies" resurrects old Broadway in a musical set in a vaudeville theater that's about to be torn down. The theater owner summons the former hoofers to a reunion, and two couples struggle with the fractures in their marriages against a backdrop of their re-created youth, before their dreams were dashed by their own follies. 
     The show opened on Broadway in 1971 with music and lyrics by the most sophisticated artist in musical theater. Duke has some musical history herself. As a teen star, she recorded six bubble gum records, including her one hit, 1964's "Please Don't Just Stand There." Her last professional venture in music was the 1965 film, "Billie," in which she played a singing tomboy who joins the boys' track team. (Her voice was dubbed over in the soundtrack of the 1967 camp clunker, "Valley of the Dolls.") 
     So wouldn't Sondheim seem like the logical next step? 
     "It's a leap, isn't it?" she says and laughs. It's a couple of days before the first rehearsal, and Duke is being interviewed on a sunny bench outside the darkened Wadsworth. For a TV icon, she looks very much like the nice lady from a small Idaho town that she's become in recent years. She's wearing a pink flowered dress topped by an unbuttoned white blouse with short sleeves, barely any makeup and big wire-rimmed glasses that magnify her blue eyes. She speaks in a raspy voice that bears little relationship to the TV teen of yore after so many years of smoking and stress. Duke laughs easily as she explains why she opted to brave her first musical in 35 years. 
     "One of the things that went into making the decision was that I really wanted to take a risk," she continues. "I have a wonderful life, but I have not been working in television. That was my bailiwick, and I thought, 'My God, if not now, when? How many more times are people going to offer me a musical?' 
     "So here I am," she says with a hoot. "Terrified." 
     Duke, who went public with her 1982 discovery that she was manic-depressive, is famous for facing her fears. When director Arthur Allan Seidelman invited her to audition for the part of Phyllis two months ago, she went for it. Seidelman has known Duke for a dozen years and had worked with her on several projects, including the 1996 TV film "Harvest of Fire," about arson among the Amish, as well as play readings in L.A. and New York. He thought she'd be perfect for the role of the embittered survivor Phyllis. 
     The glamorous, world-weary Phyllis has one of the most difficult songs in the show, crammed with rapid-fire, tongue-twisting Sondheim-isms. In "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," Phyllis sings about the two rivals for her husband's love--herself (Jessie) and the housewife Sally (Lucy), or "juicy but drab Lucy and dressy but cold Jessie." 
     "I just thought that she was a brilliant actress and has all the qualities that are so right for Phyllis--intelligence, emotional complexity," Seidelman says. "She's at a perfect point in her life to play Phyllis. I also knew that she sang and was interested in doing musicals, so I put it all together." 
     Duke's career began on the stage in 1959, when she played Helen Keller in the Broadway production of "The Miracle Worker," a role she re-created on film in an Oscar-winning performance. At the time, the New York Times raved, "As Helen, little Miss Duke is altogether superb." 
     In the '70s, she performed in theaters around the country, sometimes with her third husband, John Astin. But by the '80s, her stage career had dwindled to a trickle, drying up completely after a 1990 run of "Meetings on the Porch" at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. So by the time Seidelman asked her to do a reading of Richard Alfieri's "The Sisters" in L.A. five years ago, the stage was a distant memory for her. 
     "It was almost foreign to me, and I wasn't sure I understood the play all that well," Duke says. "I got two lines out of my mouth, and the audience roared with laughter. I suddenly knew what the play was about. And it was that kind of night for me where I could do no wrong. It was like the manic highs, and what that is, of course, is the drug that keeps you coming back for more." Since then, she's been getting most of her fixes in civic theater in Spokane, Wash., near her home in northern Idaho. 
     When Duke arrived for her "Follies" audition, Seidelman asked the production's music director, Gerald Sternbach, to help prepare her. "She was really gung-ho when I vocalized her, and she sight-read it a little bit," Sternbach says. "She's musical enough to hit the notes and, because of her instincts, she gets the values of the lyric and the arc of the piece." 
     Duke was offered the job on the spot. "She has the perfect voice for Phyllis," Seidelman says. "It's filled with the dramatic intensity and bite that is Phyllis." 
     When Duke returned to Idaho, she got to work. For the next two months, she spent four hours a day, six days a week, working with singing and dancing coaches from a local college. Oddly enough, those were the first lessons she'd ever had, because the Svengali-like couple who managed her as a child and made her a star never bothered with them. 
     "It's fascinating to me that they did not insist that there be those kinds of lessons," Duke muses. "But she [Ethel Ross] was a dancer, and she decided if I ever needed to dance, she'd teach me the five steps I needed and that would be that. Then when I got away from them on my own, I was so involved in my own mental illness and getting married and having children, the idea of going to tap-dance classes didn't come up." 
     Ethel Ross and her then-husband, John, isolated her from her family, subjected her to relentless work and changed her given name from Anna Marie, declaring, "Anna Marie is dead." She recounted her childhood trials--as the daughter of a chronically depressed mother who kicked out her alcoholic father when she was 6--in the first of two best-selling memoirs, "Call Me Anna" (1988), written with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. 
     But she's quick to point out that the couple who claimed her youth also protected her by seeing that she owned one-third of "The Patty Duke Show," which produced income for her when it was rerun on Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite until a few years ago. 
     Now that she has some distance from that painful period, Duke can count her blessings. "When you walk down the street and a total stranger sings a 40-year-old theme to you, you go, 'Someone was paying attention.' I love it! Strangers nod and smile or call out, 'I love you.' What a nice way to go through life. Other people don't even say 'excuse me' to other people, and a total stranger is sending me love vibes." 
     The reruns have also generated a new crop of fervent fans. Not long ago, a group of nine college-age Patty Duke aficionados from around the country traveled to Spokane to catch a stage performance. After the show, she invited them to the 80-acre farm she shares with her firefighter husband, Michael Pearce, 47, adopted son Kevin, 13, and 53 llamas, horses, miniature donkeys and horses, goats, sheep and dogs. 
     "What was most fun--or most frightening, I'm not sure which--was one would start talking about an episode of the old series, and they'd all pick it up," she says. "They knew every line. When they went home, I hugged and kissed each one of them and said, 'Now get a life!' " 
     Duke moved on long ago. "Patty" doesn't play much of a role in her personal life, where she's known as Anna. Her family calls her Anna Banana. And now that her actor son Sean Astin, 31, has a child of his own and another on the way, she's become Nana Anna Banana. 
     After she married Pearce in 1985, Duke became stepmother to his daughters, Charlene, 24, a genetic researcher, and Raelene, who drowned in a 1998 car accident at age 22. The wound hasn't totally healed yet. 
     "I'll see a girl driving in a car and her hair seems to be the same way and you go...." She gasps. "I thought maybe I was just being mentally ill, but my husband says that he has the same experience. We seem to be at a rather calm place, but even that will get better for us as we decide what it is we believe in terms of the larger picture. I mean, I believe, then I don't believe. I'm hoping God's ego will handle it OK," she says and laughs. 
     As for her other children, Duke says she's grateful for her close relationships with Sean and his actor brother, Mackenzie Astin, 29, despite the rough childhood to which she subjected them before her illness was diagnosed. 
     "I had no patience," she says. "This was not all the time. The thing that these kids had going against them was that you never knew when what was all hunky-dory was going to fly out the window and you were going to be screamed at and berated and either ostracized or made to do some humiliating punishment." 
     Mac has told her he's finally ready to write a memoir about those years, which leaves her with mixed emotions. "My stomach goes grrrrr. We know what he's going to write about. And I really have told everything I can tell without impeding on the privacy of other people. 
     "But as painful as it might be for me, it will also be remarkably interesting to finally really hear it from their point of view. They just sort of said, 'She's OK now. She's taking her pills.' Well, that's not enough for them. They have to examine it further. And if that means making Mom look not so good, that's the way it was." 
     But since there are indeed second acts in life, Duke is hoping that hers will be a robust career on the stage, ultimate destination New York. Meanwhile, she's bonding with her fellow thespians in the strange garden on Burbank Boulevard, where she's taking a cigarette break. At one point, Sternbach goes over to her and bends down to embrace her 5-foot frame. 
     "I'm so proud of you," he stage-whispers into her ear. "Fearless. You're fearless."