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Marbled with bitterness and surrealism, Follies — the complexly structured tribute to American musical theater traditions of the 1930s and ‘40s, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman — sparked widely polarized opinions when Harold Prince’s original production opened in 1971 and was considered a mild flop after an initial run of 522 performances. Thankfully, tastes change and the show now is seen as a major evolution of the form and a significant landmark in Sondheim’s career, arriving after Company and before A Little Night Music.
With this latest revival at London’s National Theatre, Follies continues to grow its reputation and become even more “meta” than it already was, building strata of self-reflection as the years pass like some glorious coral reef. Sprinkled with knowingness and abetted by stunning period design, Dominic Cooke’s production plays like a commentary not just on the heyday of American revue theater between the two World Wars, but also on that post-groovy era when the show was first performed, a time of martinis, muumuus and endless extra-marital mischief, right at the dawn of the women’s movement. Even the neon-style font and image of an eye crying tears of glitter on the poster exudes a strong retro vibe.
After deservedly acclaimed performances in recent revivals of Gypsy and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In London, Imelda Staunton alone will represent a draw with her electric turn here as the fragile, aging former chorine Sally Durant Plummer. It’s a heartbreaking performance, fast alternating girlish charm, toddler-like stubbornness and a sizeable dose of just plain crazy, backed up with Staunton’s powerhouse pipes. But it’s her quieter moments that really wrench, particularly late in the game when she gives a trembling rendition of the tragic ballad “Losing My Mind,” a song younger audiences may know from the disco-fied Liza Minnelli-Pet Shop Boys collaboration.
Staunton joins a standout cast that mixes august stage talents (including 76-year-old Dame Josephine Barstow, soprano of renown) with seasoned performers and a chorus line’s worth of impressive young hoofers. Altogether, it’s a smart, sexy package featuring a dizzying series of bravura, showstopping tunes and performances. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting to watch, albeit in a good way, especially given the decision to perform the musical in one intermissionless act of two hours and 15 minutes.
With nearly two dozen songs on offer here (and a few spares in reserve, written to suit different cast strengths), no one could ever accuse Sondheim of being lazy. That constant churn of music finds a physical correlative in the Olivier’s revolving stage, kept in a near-constant clockwise spin to reveal various scenes in and around the old Weissman Theatre, a fictional Great White Way brick and greasepaint legend that’s about to be knocked down to make way for another Midtown office block.
Silver-haired impresario Dimitri Weissman (Gary Raymond) has invited surviving stars, former chorus girls and their various partners to assemble for a farewell reunion on site with cocktails and canapes. Those attending include dotty Phoenix housewife Sally and her oil-biz husband Buddy (Peter Forbes); and affluent East Coast-elite couple Phyllis Rogers Stone (Olivier-winner Janie Dee from the National’s production of Carousel, here a study in brass, sass and grit) and Benjamin Stone (Philip Quast), with whom Sally has been in love for 30 years, even though he inexplicably ended their affair to marry her then-best friend Phyllis.
The uncanny solution of Sondheim and Goldman to showing past and present is to have each of the matrons “ghosted” by a second actress playing the same character in her youth, which creates a three-dimensional chess problem for Cooke in terms of blocking. But the director’s confidence with large ensembles and knack for creating fluidity — witnessed by his recent productions at the National of The Comedy of Errors and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — comes up trumps here with the younger and older selves gliding in and out in complex reels and quadrilles.
The footwork becomes ever more thoughtfully blurred by the end, with older Ben directly addressing young Sally (Alex Young), while young Phyllis (Zizi Strallen) minces sweetly as her senior incarnation bumps and grinds during “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” a number cut from some past productions. Of course, the doubling conceit achieves its apotheosis in terms both of theme and intricacy for the ensemble piece “Who’s That Woman,” in which a lineup of some of the most prominent Weismann veterans, led by Stella (a superb Dawn Hope), performs the “mirror song,” a tap ballet that keeps peaking and plateauing bar by bar.
Limited space prohibits further gushing here about each and every individual turn, so suffice it to say that Di Botcher’s interpretation of “Broadway Baby” and Tracie Bennett’s “I’m Still Here” are particular stunners. The men in the ensemble are less well-served by the material and generally prove less memorable, although Forbes brings an impish charm to “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” Ultimately, however, Follies is a woman’s show where the females have the best lines even if their characters have the least power.
Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Gary Raymond, Jordan Shaw, Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast, Fred Haig, Peter Forbes, Josephine Barstow, Bruce Graham, Dawn Hope, Adrian Grove, Di Botcher, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Zizi Strallen, Alex Young, Adam Rhys-Charles, Tracie Bennett, Billy Boyle, Norma Atallah, Liz Izen, Julie Armstrong, Gemma Page
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Goldman
Director: Dominic Cooke
Set & costume designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Choreographer: Bill Deamer
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick, with Josh Clayton
Presented by the National Theatre
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