Sondheim fans rejoice! This is a dazzling , very moving absolutely HUGE production with a cast of 37 and incredible costumes.
The original Broadway production of FOLLIES was in 1971. This is the first time FOLLIES has been staged by the National in the UK . Here in Australia , there have been a couple of concert versions – 1998 and 2016 but so far as I am aware no fully staged version .
Directed by Dominic Cooke FOLLIES has an absolutely stellar cast led by among others Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast. Maestro Nigel Lilley conducts a fabulous orchestra of 21 that is hidden from view but plays superbly.
The plot centres around a farewell party on the stage of the iconic crumbling Weismann Theatre scheduled for demolition tomorrow. Thirty years after their final performance, several of the Follies women gather to have a few drinks, sing a few songs and perhaps lie about themselves.
“Weismann’s Follies,” a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies), played in the theatre between the World Wars. FOLLIES basically focuses on two couples, Buddy (Peter Forbes) ,and Sally Durant Plummer ( Imelda Staunton) and Benjamin ( Philip Quast) and Phyllis Rogers Stone, ( Janie Dee )who are attending the reunion. Sally and Phyllis were showgirls in the Follies. Over the course of the show we see how both couples are unhappy with their now fractured, disintegrating marriages.
Buddy, a travelling salesman, is having an affair with a girl on the road; Sally is still as much in love with Ben as she was years ago; and Ben is so cold and self-absorbed that Phyllis feels emotionally bereft. Several of the former showgirls perform their old numbers, sometimes accompanied by the ghosts of their former selves.
The musical numbers in the show are reminiscent of the styles of the leading Broadway composers of the 1920s and ’30s, and sometimes as parodies of specific songs and vaudeville .There are also allusions to Gypsy , Chicago and West Side Story for example musically and in the staging/choreography which at times evokes that of Fosse and Robbins but also vaudeville in other sections.
Much use is made of the revolve .Vicki Mortimer’s set designs are terrific , allowing for fluid scene changes – the backstage of a theatre with crumbling brick walls ,already partially demolished with cragged edges , splintered wood , discarded props and pummelled red velvet chairs. The set is dominated by a West Side Story like fire escape (handy and most effective for spectacular entrances as in Beautiful Girls and also for the ghosts of memories in Waiting for the Girls Upstairs for example). And the opulent lavish Erte style costumes for the showgirls with all the extravagant pearls ,diamonds and feathers are ravishing! Paule Constable’s lighting heightens and compliments the performance superbly.
It is a show about aging, lost love and regret. Most of the women, elegant in their party finery , sadly reflect on their vanished youth and discover they are, and yet are not, the same people they always were. While the men are perhaps more likely to feel they have taken a wrong turning in their lives and can’t go back either. Some of it could be regarded as quite dated and sexist perhaps but perfectly appropriate to the era it represents.
Imelda Staunton is incredible as Sally, Buddy’s wife, in a towering performance . At first she is radiant, deluding herself her husband still loves her ( In Buddy’s eyes) , which is followed by antsy nervous energy hidden by a smile , but by the end with Losing My Mind she succumbs to abject misery.
Ben , a UN diplomat turned financier is superbly played by Philip Quast who sings divinely and handles the very difficult score as if it was written for him. At first he seems urbane and charming but gradually we see the hidden desolation and in his final number Live, Laugh, Love he collapses mid routine – is it the actor or the character who disintegrates into a dark sea of self loathing?
JanieDee as brittle elegant Phyllis, Ben’s wife is magnificent, with acerbic put downs and asides and she reveals the hidden pain and loneliness under the acidic sculpturally poised façade she has developed. Peter Forbes as Sally’s genial,put upon philandering husband Buddy, caught between adultery and the stability of marriage, reveals the pain of loving a woman who he knows still loves someone else and always will.
Tracie Bennett as Carlotta sizzles and growls in the showstopping I’m still here. She is a thin firecracker in a red lacy dress – beginning as if telling a story to her friends , finishing proudly and defiantly alone. As Hattie , a bespectacled , suited Di Botcher gives a powerhouse performance of Broadway Baby, that brings the house down. She appears poignantly weary and dowdy at first but her explosive vocals set the theatre alight and her fear and desperation turn to triumph.
Dawn Hope as Stella is hot, sultry and steamy leading the jazzy Who’s that Woman? to a breathless ,exuberant finale. Tall, elegant Josephine Barstow as Heidi is an elegant faded reversion to Vienna and operetta accompanied by her younger self in the dreamily romantic Lehar like (or should that be Strauss? ) One Last Kiss.
Bittersweet and poignant the show is based on duality a bittersweet elegy to the ephemeral nature of theatre and the folly and brevity of life , chasing a mirage -or is it ?.
Running time – 2& ½ hours NO interval . Includes short documentary on the history of the show and an interview with Stephen Sondheim.