Broadway and Beyond: A Couple of New Oldies but (Sort of) Goodies

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Choreographer Kathleen Marshall and director Matthew Warchus

It hasn't been a bad season for new musicals ("Seussical," "The Full Monty," the upcoming "The Producers"), but Broadway still can't stay away from the oldies. Why should it? Given a competent director and a few credible singers, there's hardly a lower-risk gamble these days than to remount a classic like "Kiss Me Kate" or "Annie Get Your Gun" (to name two current hit revivals). Trickier, though, is revisiting the almost-classics, those shows that we recall a bit more fondly, perhaps, than we should. Witness the two latest old-fogey shows back on Broadway: "Follies" and "Bells Are Ringing."

I come to both with little nostalgic baggage. I had seen neither of them onstage before (though somewhere in my TV memory bank are deposited a few scenes from the movie version of "Bells"). I'm familiar with the scores, but not so familiar that my head is ingrained with old, unmatchable performances. I'm not looking for these shows to measure up; I just want them to work.

With some qualifications, I think both do. The Roundabout Theater's much-anticipated revival of "Follies," first of all, makes a good case for what was revolutionary about composer Stephen Sondheim. When the show was first staged in 1971, Broadway was still in the afterglow of its musical-comedy golden age; "Fiddler on the Roof" was still running; "Hello Dolly" had just closed. And along comes Sondheim with this rueful, multilayered, modernist show about aging show folk mulling their bad marriages and misspent lives. Clearly, we're not in Kansas in August any more.

The second thing to admire about "Follies" is Sondheim's score, to my ear his best. Using the device of a reunion of former members of a Ziegfeld-like chorus, he manages both to recreate the pizzazz of the old ("Broadway Baby") while introducing a whole new palette of irony and psychological depth, in songs like the spiky ballad "Losing My Mind" and the witty and intricate "God-Why-Don't- You-Love-Me-Blues." The straining, tune-phobic, thesaurus-bound Sondheim was still years away; here he is fresh, challenging, melodic.

Matthew Warchus's production, however, is darker and more glum than it needs to be. If I showed up at a party with these bare-brick walls and pathetic strands of light bulbs, I'd be depressed too. And nice as it is to see old pros like Polly Bergen and Betty Garrett onstage again, their pipes — somebody's got to say it — ain't what they used to be. As the two couples at the center of the story, Blythe Danner, Gregory Harrison and Treat Williams range from OK to OK-plus; only Judith Ivey manages to really connect with the audience.

Still, I don't think the shortcomings should be laid on the production. I point the finger at James Goldman's tiresome book. All these disillusioned, middle-aged people lamenting the roads not taken, the marriages gone awry — and yet, dammit, they're still here! Watching ineffectual neurotics sort out their lives may have been an edgy concept for a musical in 1971; today it seems as affected as the sentimental optimism that Sondheim and Goldman were rejecting.

Not to mention more boring.

Everybody in "Bells Are Ringing," by contrast, is pretty darn happy. The 1956 Comden and Green musical about an answering-service operator who falls for one of her phone customers is a treat, again, largely for its score. Jule Styne's songs may not be quite in the "Guys and Dolls" league, but they have the kind of effortless tunefulness that '50s shows seemed to exude, from "I Met a Girl," that infectous outburst of love-at-first-sight giddiness, to "Just in Time," one of the most simple and joyous of all theater love duets.

Director Tina Landau, who has shown a keen eye for stage composition in such off-Broadway shows as "Space" and "Floyd Collins," gives us a very sharp and eye-catching production. Establishing at the outset that the show is a period piece, she opens with scenes from 1950s TV, which resolve ingeniously into the live actors and the start of the show. The cool, amusingly retro set design is fun, and Landau shows a surprisingly deft comic touch. All that and the irresistible Faith Prince, as the lovesick operator, who has both the robust voice and the comic scrappiness to help us forget (or at least, put out of our minds temporarily) the great Judy Holliday, for whom the show was created.

If "Bells Are Ringing" turns out to be a bit of a slog, I again blame the book. Even once you get past the dated gags about marble-mouthed actors imitating Marlon Brando, you've got to weather a cumbersome farce plot that involves a bookie ring masquerading as a record club, a dentist who wants to be a songwriter and too many bumbling police detectives. It's not as if the script lacks laughs (is "Guys and Dolls" really any funnier?), but that the laughs are too much of a digression from the love story at hand. Whether gleeful, like Comden and Green, or glum, like Sondheim and Goldman, musicals need to hit that elusive perfect balance between story and score, and both these shows seem a bit out of whack.