Concert versions of musicals are very unforgiving. Unless they are performed with great skill and indefatigable brio, they can do nothing but disappoint. Absent sets and costumes, score and book are laid bare, and so too are the artists, who must look like themselves, in glamorous formal attire, but be others. It’s a tough ask.
Some thirty years ago, a famous concert in New York gave rebirth to one of Stephen Sondheim’s great scores. The cast there assembled wrought special magic and, even now, the recording of that concert has special power, remarkable resonance.
That cannot be said about the matinee performance yesterday of the concert of the same great work at the Royal Albert Hall. Although there were many fine moments, some genuinely thrilling, this was not a performance for the history books, a reality that has nothing to do with either Gareth Valentine’s masterful conducting of the 38 strong City of London Philharmonic or Andrew Wright’s stylish, sexy and evocative choreography.
Follies is a masterpiece. Sondheim’s score is a loving tribute to various styles that had found prominence on Broadway in the age when large-scale, large-cast productions brought seasonal, frothy Follies to the stage. Pastiche number after pastiche number pays glorious tribute to that time, those shows. James Goldman provides a book which jumps between time zones, slowly filling in the stories of Ben and Phyllis, Buddy and Sally. Ben and Buddy were mates, and when Phyllis and Sally were chorus girls, they would wait breathlessly by the stage door for them. Ben made love to Sally but never intended to marry her; Phyllis was always his goal. Sally loved Ben and, hurt and confused, she married Buddy.
The theatre where they performed is being flattened to make way for a car park and the impresario who staged the old shows decides to hold a final, farewell party in the ruins of the theatre. As the people who once had the times of their lives on stage gather and reminisce, their memories are revived, their minds wander and, in the case of the central four characters, old wounds are opened and re-examined. The folly of youth is contrasted against the folly of maturity and all against the background of the folly of combining song and dance for pure entertainment. The song and dance folly turns out not to be the true folly.
The set-up provides opportunity after opportunity for show-stopping numbers as old timers relive their greatest moments on that stage. The great surprise conceit of the piece – when the central quartet’s inner anguish is given representation as a series of old-fashioned Follies numbers – gives that foursome numbers of true bravura which, when done as intended, will shatter even the most cynical heart.
Of course, the flip side is that if the potential show-stoppers and bravura turns do not come to fruition, the disappointment is severe. This is especially so given how many of the numbers from this score have become cabaret standards, performed over and over by recording and performing superstars.
So, as ever, casting is everything. Or should be.
In the case of Betty Buckley as Carlotta, the casting was inspired. Gracious and worldly, star power effortless in every gesture, every phrase, Buckley was the quintessential diva, the real deal. Rightly so, her powerful and joyful rendition of I’m Still Here stopped the show and saw audience members leap to their feet. There was something truly astonishing about hearing the orchestra change key while watching Buckley’s eyes dazzle with the expectancy of the notes to come, her whole body immersed in the task of selling the song. I have never heard this song sung better in live performance. Buckley alone was worth the price of admission.
One of the aspects of Follies which can be challenging and often hit-or-miss is the youngerselves quartet. Not here. The younger versions of Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy were spot-on, engaging and sublime. Alistair Brammer (Young Ben) and Laura Pitt-Pulford (Young Phyllis) were perfectly in sync, in truly excellent voice and completely in the right style in delivering the delicious You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow; their empathy, charm and classy delivery was divine. Brammer showed terrific, classic male lead potential, not evident in his modern turn in Miss Saigon, while Pulford showed yet another facet of her multi-talented appeal. It was the same with the luminous Amy Ellen Richardson (Young Sally) and the wide-eyed Jos Slovick – pitch-perfect performances of Love Will See Us Through provided great joy as well as underscoring the fractures in the relationships of the older versions of their characters, in addition to providing the cures to those fractures. A step behind Buckley, these four were the other stars of the concert.
Russell Watson started proceedings badly with an ill-judged, off-note and messy rendition of Beautiful Girls. Happily, Stephanie Powers was smart and glamorous as Solange and Ah, Paris! fared better than often it does. Lorna Luft, as Hattie, provided the first vocal thrill of the afternoon with her committed and brassy rendition of parts, but only parts, of Broadway Baby. But it was Anita Dobson’s self-deprecating turn as Stella which finally galvanised the entire company into glorious cohesion: her attack in Who’s That Woman was splendid (a gutsy belt matched her tap-dancing prowess) and she and all of the other women acquitted themselves well in bringing Andrew Wright’s clever choreography to life. The number had a real sense of shared accomplishment, of success against the odds. Later, Charlotte Page’s delivery of One Kiss soared as it should and that number became one of the most tender and heartfelt moments of the production. Totally in tune, vocally and dramatically, Page was another delight.
There were significant sound issues during the performance, quite unfathomable in a venue such as the Royal Albert Hall which ought to be practised in properly servicing concert performances, and these adversely impacted some of the vocal performances. Anita Harris and Roy Hudd suffered particularly in this respect during Rain On The Roof (although that might have been a blessing because neither seemed properly prepared), but so did the four main leads – Christine Baranski (Phyllis), Alexander Hanson (Ben), Ruthie Henshall (Sally) and Peter Polycarpou (Buddy).
Baranski fared the best of the four; her Phyllis was brittle, regal and immaculately stylish. Her work in The Story of Lucy and Jessie was her best, and she was helped in this by some very sexy and sprightly dancing from the ensemble. Surprisingly, her rendition of Could I Leave You? was not as impressive as it should have been, but that seemed more about unfamiliarity with the text and music than ability, although her hands were utterly in a show of their own. She made the sparse acting scenes work well enough and there was a real conviction to her relationships with the other three characters. Her final embrace and acceptance of Hanson’s Ben was genuinely affecting.
Hanson delivered his usual smooth, slightly jittery, urbane leading man, reliable but unremarkable. He may have been saving his voice for the evening performance, but he seemly oddly underpowered vocally, especially in The Road You Didn’t Take. His best scenes were with Baranski and the haunted, haunting moments when past and present collided. He was hamstrung by Ruthie Henshall’s disappointingly cold and uninteresting Sally and her imprecision at the top of her vocal range took the edge off the power of Too Many Mornings. Sally is the most complex of the foursome, broken, lost and falling apart. She doesn’t sing Losing My Mind for giggles. Henshall did not even attempt to bring any insight or freshness to Sally and her inability to keep in tune (In Buddy’s Eyes was painful) made her casting almost inexplicable, especially with Page in the cast. When Phyllis comes across as the warm, understanding wife, something is seriously wrong. Peter Polycarpou completed the central quartet as Buddy, as blandly and predictably as his casting promised.
Craig Revel Horwood directed proceedings and there was an efficiency and sense of style throughout which was admirable. The “set” consisted of four huge light-bulb framed mirrors, which were effective in evoking the performance past of the theatre where the action was set and Revel Horwood saw to it that they were moved into interesting tableaux at various stages. Wright’s choreography was excellent throughout and the ensemble did excellent work. Their costumes were, however, stranger than they might have been, particularly the men. The time line crossing was all done effectively.
The oddest part of the entire proceedings, though, was the inexplicable decision to continue the first Act beyond its natural and intended end, Too Many Mornings, into the second Act material (none of which was identified in the programme) just beyond Could I Leave You?, at the point where Ben’s character is stumbling. This meant that the second Act was entirely comprised of the Loveland dream sequences and their aftermath. There might have been a point to this is there had been some serious resetting of the stage, or if elaborate costumes had to be donned – but that was not the case. This directorial decision caused consternation because the sense of the progression of the musical was fatally compromised by it. This was a great folly of its own.
In the end, this concert was important because it allowed the power of the score to be felt with the full backing of an impressive orchestra. In that way, if not in many others, Sondheim’s work was well served. Otherwise, it was an exercise in making the case for a proper, fully fledged production that allows the depths and breadth of the piece to be properly explored and which allows an older generation of stars a proper chance at the limelight.
In a city which boasts Hannah Waddingham, Jenna Russell, Josephina Gabrielle, Imelda Staunton, Julia MacKenzie, Sian Phillips, Maureen Lipman, Judi Dench, Caroline O’Connor and Elaine Paige it seems incomprehensible that it is necessary to import female stars, no matter how brightly they may burn, to swell ranks in Follies. Perhaps The Old Vic will take up the challenge? Someone certainly should.