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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Losing My Impossible Dream

Kevin McGuire’s credits include Broadway’s Les Mis, Toronto’s Phantom, John Houseman’s Acting Company and much more. He’s a native of upstate New York – not far from Saratoga Springs – and returned to the area to spend ten years running a theater company in a small, artsy hamlet. He was a natural choice for the lead in Man of La Mancha at Albany’s Capital Repertory Company, and won great acclaim for a performance that showed thoughtful, credible character layering in this scaled-down production.

An unseen keyboard ties together a handful of instrumentalists, each of whom we see on stage at one time or another. Choreography is precise and intimate, making skillful use of the space and scenery. And then, inevitably, comes the big number, the one you couldn’t escape from if you grew up during this musical’s first Broadway run. “The Impossible Dream” has been warbled by everyone from Jim Nabors to Shirley Bassey to Elvis, with notable versions by Sinatra, Domingo, and (minus the word “hell”) The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It’s anthemic. It has become as much about singing as about the song itself. Like much of lyricist Joe Darion’s work in the show, the text is repetitive, anemic. Nobody cares. The words have become inspiring, swooping up along the simple, ever-rising melodic line, culminating in a killer final note.

From the start of his performance of the song, McGuire clearly was heading in another direction. He was allowing the character – Don Quixote, delusional, idealistic, determined, frail – to inhabit the piece. Suddenly there was a new aspect to the number: an awareness of the folly behind the quest.

The French folies came from the Latin, foliae, or “leaves,” eventually describing a house surrounded by leaves that could serve as a trysting place, and then a field in which such diversions might occur. A folly became an architectural feature and, in France, a style of entertainment, most famously the Folies Bergère. The Ziegfeld Follies and its clones were Broadway features in the early 1900s, but by the time Stephen Sondheim’s Follies opened in 1971, such shows were distant memory.

Follies, its title fraught with extra meaning, invites us to a reunion of those early Follies girls and their spouses in a theater about to be demolished. Broadway’s Marquis Theater draped its rafters in widow’s weeds for the 2011 revival, in which Bernadette Peters reprised the role that brought her great acclaim when this production played at the Kennedy Center.

Peters is no stranger to Sondheim, having created roles in Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. She took over the role of Desiree in a recent revival of A Little Night Music, and is a natural fit for Follies’ Sally, still wearing her heart on her sleeve for the man she didn’t marry three decades earlier.

And she gets the showstopper torch song, “Losing My Mind,” inspired by Gershwin but very much a gem on its own. It has been recorded by a more rarefied group of singers, including Cleo Laine, Bobby Short, Barbara Cook, and Donna Murphy. What ties this and “The Impossible Dream” together is not that both were recorded by Shirley Bassey, although that fact is worth enjoying. It’s the portrait of character contained within the song.

As a stand-alone number, there’s no reason not to explore every nuance of its haunting melody (and please don’t leave out the rising whole-tone scale that creepily accompanies the first singing of the final eight bars). But as part of the show itself, it’s something of an epiphany to the portrait of Sally – at least as Peters performs it.

She had some vocal problems during the run of the show, evident in a bootleg recording that surfaced during the August previews. By the time I saw her in November, her voice sounded more secure and had become a convincing extension of the character’s plaintive denial, giving “In Buddy’s Eyes” undercurrents with notes of anger among the regret.

“Losing My Mind,” however, showed us that Sally had been emotionally regressing throughout the party. It became the lament of a moonstruck teen, cast in the only language with which Sally feels comfortable: the language of showbiz. It was harrowing and unlike any other performance I’ve heard.

There’s a category of performer described as “actors who sing.” This appellation promises that the sense of the song will get across even if it isn’t sung in a technically dazzling way. Neither McGuire nor Peters fall into that category. They have the kind of chops that make for terrific concert appearances, and both have worked frequently in that capacity.

But their performances as these iconic characters in these iconic shows remind us that the singing actor’s bag of tricks blurs any line between acting and singing, and takes us to the summit of what makes musical theater such a compelling form of entertainment.