The idea that you have to buy into Follies, to accept its book by James Goldman and its concept by Sondheim, comes because of the show's quirks: Watching Follies - at least the first part of this production in two acts - is like attending a high school reunion but not your own. Who are these people. Why should we care about them? Plus, Follies may seem, early on, like a cheap trick - an excuse for working big show tunes into a little plot by having performers come to a reunion and play to each other.
It's also cynical: The characters haven't left their shtik on stage three decades back, when the follies folded. Along with all the good memories, they carry ancient personal grudges, hurts, stuff that comes to the fore when they reunite. The show eventually focuses on the two chorus girls who married the boys waiting backstage, and how those marriages evolved, or more accurately, devolved, and these characters themselves end up staging their own personal follies, in song and dance, before us.
The gorgeous production, in a new, rich orchestration, mounted originally by Washington's Kennedy Center, is detailed down to the makeover of the Marquis Theater's interior, looking very much on its last legs (Derek McLane's scenery.) The lighting effects by Natasha Katz are dramatic and bold, and Gregg Barnes' costumes are as fine for the featured cast as they are for the performers who appear in the background and on two levels, playing young ghosts of the people who attend the reunion.
The two couples who relive the not-so-good parts of yore are played by Peters and Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines - all of them excellent in the show's many solo numbers, which are sometimes fragile, often passionate and staged for maximum brio by choreographer Warren Carlyle and director Eric Schaeffer. The estimable supporting cast includes Jayne Houdyshell (she sings a bangin' "Broadway Baby"), Terri White (ditto for her "Who's That Woman?" with the ensemble), Rosalind Elias as one of the older Follies gals ("One More Kiss," sung with Leah Horowitz as her young self), and Elaine Paige.
Paige gets to sing the in-your-face "I'm Still Here," and gives it gangbuster treatment - it's one of those Broadway songs written for the rafters, and Paige is happy to shake them. Happy - who is and who isn't, and to what degree - plays a big role in this reunion and so does success, as in all reunions.
Follies offers a smart definition of success - "being good at what you love to do," says one character. It can't offer one for happiness, so it asks, profoundly: Who, out there, is happy?
And what does that mean, anyway?
Follies: At the Marquis Theatre, Broadway at 45th Street, New York City. Information: http:/folliesbroadway.com or 1-877-250-2929.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.