The Great ‘Follies’ Smack-Down of 2011

OMG are you sick of me writing about this stupid show yet? Well, there’s the door, kiddo. No, that’s the closet. Nope, that’s the way to the robot collection. Oh gosh. Nevermind. Just stick around and deal with it for one or two more posts.

So! The Great Follies Smack-Down of 2011, where I judge both the Broadway production, which I saw on Saturday, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production, which I saw on Wednesday, by ranking key, scientifically chosen criteria. Before we begin, let’s be clear about a few things: this is intended for fun and folly ONLY. In addition, both productions are completely different beasts. One was designed for a 1,600 seat proscenium theatre with a $7.5 million budget and already had months of performances under its belt by the time I saw it, and the other for a 500 seat thrust stage for a fraction of a fraction of that price tag and had only been playing for a week (can you guess which is which?) But seats and dollar signs do not indicate quality, because big flash can be easily substituted for intimate intensity.

So, without further ado, let’s bring on the Weismann girls!

Best “Losing My Mind”
Shakes: Susan Moniz delivered what some might consider a standard take on the tune, but did so exquisitely. She simply sang the song, looked great, and had a few tears in her eyes at the appropriate moments.
Bulldozers: It was my first time seeing Bernadette Peters Live! On Stage! so I was enraptured. But, her performance of this tune was so over-the-top (at one point she literally squatted down and hit the stage with her hand, I swear to God) it was distracting.

Winner: Shakes

Most spiteful “Could I Leave You?”
Shakes: The compact Caroline O’Conner looks like she could kick some ass — she might even have a knife hidden on her being somewhere. But she’s also funny: I haven’t laughed as much during a performance of this number. The combination of humor and danger was intriguing.
Bulldozers: Jan Maxwell’s super aggressive approach really worked for me. Near the end, she was pretty much at “Lions Roar” volume. But perhaps it was too much for some?

Winner: Bulldozers, by a smidge

Best “Loveland” transition sequence
Shakes: A stunning fake proscenium stage came down from the flys while Sally, Ben, Phyllis and Buddy ran off the stage.
Bulldozers: As the conflict heated up, a black curtain came down with the cast arguing in front. Then, the curtain lifted to reveal a blinding red and pink set with the follies ghosts in exquisitely detailed white costumes. Sally, Ben, Phyllis and Buddy turned around, looked at the tableau and began walking amongst it with a WTF? look.

Winner: Bulldozers

Best “Lucie and Jessie”
Shakes: O’Connor can dance, baby. Out of all the showstoppers in this showstopper-stuffed show, this one got the biggest hand by far. And I loved how it started with a strip routine, as if to pay homage to the “other” Phyllis song, “Ah! But Underneath.”
Bulldozers: Maxwell certainly gave her best, and I appreciated her Kay Thompson-esque vibe, but she never looked fully in control of the moment. It was a low point for me.

Winner: Shakes, by a landslide

Best “Mirror Number”
Shakes: With a small-scale production on a thrust stage, it’s hard to create a lavish tap dance routine. So, choreographer Alex Sanchez embraced the venue’s limitations and made the number a tap-off between the women and their ghostly counterparts. And it worked quite well.
Bulldozers: While I wasn’t bowled over by the uninspired, if energetic, choreography, Terri White nearly stole the show with her big voice and even bigger attitude. And it was fun seeing Bernadette sell this number in her tap shoes.

Winner: Bulldozers

Most triumphant “I’m Still Here”
Shakes: Hollis Resnik’s glamorous Carlotta radiated confidence. She didn’t need to prove herself — she just had to walk in a room and opportunity (meaning: men) would flock to her. Thus, her “I’m Still Here” was more a wry reflection on her life. But then, at the 3/4 mark, she shifted into triumph, as if to say, “hell yeah, I got through all that, and guess what? I’m still here!”
Broadway: West-end diva Elaine Paige’s Carlotta delivered her lines like Mae West and walked like she was 3 feet taller than her petite 5 foot frame. Her Carlotta was on the defense, and her “I’m Still Here” was tinged with anger, frustration and a point to prove. But also triumph. And she ended it quite powerfully. And! She remembered all the words the night I saw it, so that’s a bonus.

Winner: A draw!

Most evocative setting
Shakes: Shakes had the biggest challenge turning its Shakespeare Globe Theatre-inspired space into a distressed Weismann theatre. Kevin Depinet manages to include a proscenium stage frame in the back while placing the main party virtually in your lap.
Bulldozers: Things start off promising, with the interior of the Marquis wrapped in gray drop cloths. But the main setting was perhaps too literal for me: a gutted, tri-tiered stage. Yes, and? With such a vast budget, I expected more.

Winner: Shakes

And the victor is …


It’s a draw! Both productions, as varied as they are, have their weaknesses and strengths, which, in the end, makes both productions equally well-worth seeing. Did you see both productions? What did you think? Comment away!

16 thoughts on “The Great ‘Follies’ Smack-Down of 2011

  1. […] After seeing the Broadway production last weekend (my review here), I feel incredibly spoiled that I’ve now seen two world-class productions of this rarely produced Sondheim masterpiece in less than a week. Tune in for “The Great Follies Smack-down of 2011,” where I’ll rank each production in a number of key criteria to determine the victor! EDIT: The smack-down is over! Who’s the victor? Read here > […]

  2. I saw both as well. Saw the Shakes version lst night…first time to that theater….What I loved about their Follies is the intimacy.

    1. OH, I did mention that category in the first blog post, didn’t I? I’d say Ron Raines was the best of the two. Barret was good, but a little too composed. However, Griffin made a very unique choice of having the main follies ghost (the statuesque Jen Donohoo) walk out onstage and distract Ben, which spurred his breakdown.

  3. I saw this a week ago and have to say, I basically agree with everything on here (I also saw the Kennedy Center Production back in May) although I really appreciated the Loveland transition in this production. I was wondering if it would be effective at all, and I was pleasantly surprised with all of the smoke and lighting accompanying the arch, and (the focal point which people seem to forget when describing) the showgirl descending in a hoop. Neither matches Boris Aronson’s original, but I found both effective. I just with that in the Broadway production, they let everything descend down in full view instead of bringing down that fire-curtain thing.

    I think you have to add categories of “Ben’s Breakdown” and “most ghostly ghosts” to the list. I preferred Shakes’s breakdown with the use of the showgirl that causes Ben to tip over the edge. I also thought Shakes used the ghosts better because the actors actually acknowledged them when they were supposed to (the reaction during the vamp in “Waiting for the Girls…” was one of my favorite moments) instead of ignoring their existence until the group breakdown.

  4. Brilliant! What a fun fun fun post! And I love that it’s a draw – really hysterical Bob! Of course, I’m partial to the Broadway production even though I haven’t even seen the ChiShakes production, although I’d love to – oh to see Hollis and Caroline live again!

    1. Some people have accused me of taking a cop-out with my final verdict, bit I truly believe both productions are equally fabulous. I’m planning a return trip to Shakes’ Follies.

  5. I work at Follies, I’m there every single night. I am not in the show. Bernadette has never once in all of her performances squatted down and slapped the stage. I don’t know why you’d write such a thing, she barely moves when she sings it. Whether or not it is to your taste is another matter.

    I’ve no beef with you preferring one over the other (and this article is fantastic and fun) but stick to the facts!

  6. I saw Kennedy Ctr. this summer and Shakes on Wed.night. Shakes blew me away, it stunned me.
    But……..Ms. Peters did “Losing My Mind”, and gave me the best rendition of any song ever and moved me to the quick.
    Yea Chicago. What a theatrical joy to have been priveliged to see both. Wow, this is theatre.

  7. Saw the New York Follies last night after seeing CST a few weeks ago. I was biased in favor of Chicago but I think I have to give the edge, overall, to the Bway production. My reasons include the 28 piece orchestra and great acoustics at the Marquis, the costumes (mainly talking showgirls here), and Bernadette Peters. I didn’t love every choice BP made, but I do love her as a performer, and she and Ron Raines delivered a stirring “Too Many Mornings.” I thought I might miss the intimacy of the CST but even from the mezzanine at the Marquis, I thought the emotional quotient was high. Jan Maxwell was a more emotional Phyllis who did seem to care that her marriage was ending (she was in tears at the opening of Loveland), which makes the Ben/Phyllis reconciliation more plausible. I loved the stage picture at the end of Ben’s breakdown where he is frozen, sitting with his knees drawn up his mouth in a silent scream. Peters did not bend down and touch the floor during “Losing My Mind” but she did something close to that in the final moments of the show when she is struggling to accept that Ben doesn’t want her (and while Buddy is observing her and waiting). I also preferred the casting of young Phyllis/Sally in New York. I could barely tell them apart at CST!

    But let me emphasize that I also greatly admired the Chicago production and am planning to see it again. Susan Moniz was a very human Sally, and Caroline O’Connor’s somewhat unusual Phyllis was fantastic, IMO. The older Follies’ ladies were equally good in both productions, and I preferred Hollis Resnick as Carlotta–she was a genuinely sexy lady, not a caricature like Elaine Paige.

    1. Thanks for the report, Diane! So glad you got to see the Bway production.

      There were moments I loved in both productions — and there’s no doubt Broadway’s production is a feast for the senses (glitzy showgirls and ghost costumes, full orchestra, etc.). Overall, after seeing it again this week, I feel more satisfied with the Chicago production. I think there are just some stronger and more committed choices across the board with acting, direction and truly inspired choreography.

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