One has to be grateful for this production of Follies, for the care and common sense that has gone into the construction of a new performing version, for the quality of musical and company ensemble, for a number of performances that will resonate for a long time in the memory, and simply for the fact that we have the chance to see this extraordinarily ambitious, endlessly fascinating, perhaps always elusive, work once more. But in fairness to the greatness and range of the musical drama available – what there is to be grasped if the performers and creative team only can – then it clearly falls short of being anything like definitive.

FolliesPerformances of Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies are rare indeed. The size of the orchestra and cast, and the inevitable costs of lavish sets and costumes mean that producers baulk at the risks, taking note of the fact that even though the first production played a long run to capacity audiences, it still lost its whole investment capital. It is indicative of the problem that the last West End production was thirty years ago, and nowadays it is hard to imagine any London theatre outside the subsidised resources of the National taking it on.

Thus whatever reservations one may have about this new production it needs to be said that any enthusiast for musical theatre must be very glad to see a revival taking place, and especially one where a lot of care has gone into recreating the 1971 original rather than the variously indifferent re-workings of book and running order of songs that have followed.

To say that this is a complex show is to undersell complexity. Sondheim and James Goldman are attempting three different tasks here, any one of which would have been sufficient for most musicals. It is above all a drama about the regretful passage of time from youth to middle age, the rueful choices taken or not taken, and the golden hopes that wistfully remain in mind, even when they might never have been really there in the first place.

That is essentially the matrix of the four leading characters, the mismatched couples, Sally and Buddy, and Ben and Phyllis. Though there is little plot, they are the core of the book, together with their younger selves who shadow them throughout.

FolliesNext there is the raft of famous pastiche numbers that celebrate the composers of the Great American Songbook, whether Gershwin, Harold Arlen or Cole Porter. Almost all of these have become staples of the anthology shows that regularly mark Sondheim’s achievement in musical theatre.

Each of these is a miniature dramatic scene, like an opera aria, which requires singer-actors of rare ability and maturity to interpret properly, and a director of rare skill to stitch it all together meaningfully.

Finally, there is the overall celebration and evocation of the tradition of the Ziegfeld Follies – ‘Glorifying the American Girl’, to quote the illuminated sign on the theatre set – which offers both the perspective of time past – as the Weissman girls get together for one last reunion before the theatre in which they once high-stepped is demolished – and imagined time too, as the Follies are recreated in the ‘Loveland’ fantasy sequence at the end of the show.

To keep all these strands from getting tangled requires great directorial skill, and for the greater part Dominic Cooke makes the right calls. First up, the show is played straight through. At nearly two and a half hours that seemed, from the number of departures, to place a strain on more than a few elderly bladders; but this is the correct artistic call. The pace is stately enough as it is, with one set-piece succeeding another. And if the ‘Loveland’ sequence is to work at all, it must emerge naturally as a natural unblocking of the gathered tensions hitherto.

FolliesDesigner Vicki Mortimer centres her work around two large fragments of theatre wall and frequent use of the Olivier’s famous revolve. This worked well early on, especially in providing a fire-escape staircase descent for the ‘Beautiful Girls’, and gave lots of opportunities for the doubles and ghosts of the past to slip in and out of the action as the older characters gamely attempt to strut their stuff.

However, in the later sections the movement became more formulaic, the revolve spun a few too many times, and ‘Loveland’ came over as a tad anaemic and under-budgeted. Here Cooke’s lack of experience in musical theatre direction showed a little.

On the vast expanses of the Olivier’s stage some of the singer-actors seemed to wander aimlessly or lack a clear sense of where they should be when they were not in an actual dance routine.

Bedrock musical and choreographic values were as reliable as they usually are at the National. Nigel Lilley’s direction of a crack orchestra was spot-on every time: it was a joy to hear a revised version of Jonathan Tunick’s imaginative orchestrations performed by a twenty-one piece band.

Bill Deamer’s dance routines were both authentic to period and calibrated to the abilities of the performers, old and young. ‘Who’s that Woman?’, the famous ‘mirror’ routine, was poignant as well as beautiful; and it is hard to imagine more pizzazz in any version of ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie.’

FolliesIn a short review it is hard to cover the qualities of a cast of thirty seven. That said, the suitability of casting left something to be desired in a number of key roles. Among the grandes dames brought together to sing the signature songs, they all had their moments, but the stand-outs were Dame Josephine Barstow and Tracie Bennett.

Heidi Schiller, the aged operetta diva, is a small role, but Barstow’s every intervention had poise and weight and her delivery of ‘One More Kiss’ rightly got a huge ovation. It was one of those instances, as in Billy Holiday’s last recordings, where the depth of emotional insight and commitment outweighs and indeed triumphs over vocal limitations. Few of the characters defeat the passage of time: the ovation given here recognised one performer, in character, who did!

No production of this show can be rated successful without a barnstorming rendition of ‘I’m Still here’. This Bennett undoubtedly delivered, but her pathway up this mountain was an unusual and unusually well graduated one, moving from career-reminiscence to some of the other characters through to fierce defiance at the end in lonely isolation except for the poignant shadow of her younger self.

FolliesThe quartet at the heart of the piece were a great assembly of talent but not, to this reviewer’s mind, a winning combination. Pick of the bunch were the Phyllis of Janie Dee and Peter Forbes’ Buddy. You thoroughly believed in and sympathised with Phyllis, thanks to Dee’s rounded portrayal. She delivered ‘Could I leave you?’ with disdainful panache and rare timing that won the approval from the audience it deserved; and ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ showed off not only her superb hoofing skills, but also explained the contradictions within her character and the price she had paid in re-inventing and in fact sacrificing herself for an undeserving husband.

Likewise, Forbes was utterly credible in his credulity – his unrequited love for Sally shining out as well as his easy companionable sensual pleasure in Texan Margie. ‘Buddy’s Blues’, was both raucous and painful in a way it rarely is in performance.

Less convincing, sadly, were Philip Quast and Imelda Staunton as Ben and Sally. Quast is something of a veteran in the role of archetypal hollow public man, ‘the famous Benjamin Stone’. He certainly still has the vocal chops for the part, making the most of ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, and falling apart memorably in ‘Live, Laugh, Love’, where for the effect to work you have to believe for a moment that the actor, rather than the character, has lost his way.

However, it was overall a strangely subdued performance, containing little chemistry with Staunton, and never lifting off rhapsodically as it should in ‘Too Many Mornings’. A quick refresher of the 1985 concert performance on Youtube shows up what is missing….

FolliesIt seems churlish to say it, but Imelda Staunton is simply miscast in the role of Sally.

While Staunton sings the (often very difficult) notes more than adequately, she is never convincingly inside this role, which has to find a fragility, craziness and capacity for romantic self-delusion that is at variance with the feisty, defiant, eternal survivor that is at the heart of her stage persona, most recently displayed so magnificently in Mamma Rose and Albee’s Martha.

Her segments with Quast remained earthbound, her social awkwardness oddly assumed, and her performance of ‘Losing my Mind’ just far too angry and resentful.

Of course, there is no set way of enacting this miraculous reinvention of ‘The Man I Love’, but light and shade and evolving variation pretty much have to be there – and were not.

One has to be grateful for this production, for the care and common sense that has gone into the construction of a new performing version, for the quality of musical and company ensemble, for a number of performances that will resonate for a long time in the memory, and simply for the fact that we have the chance to see this extraordinarily ambitious, endlessly fascinating, perhaps always elusive work once more.

But in fairness to the greatness and range of the musical drama available – what there is to be grasped if the performers and creative team only can – then it clearly falls short of being anything like definitive.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…