I have never seen James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies ever before, until last night. It was only by chance that I was a subscriber to the National Theatre’s e-letters that I first heard about the date (July 18th) they were releasing tickets for the sensational show with leading actress Imelda Staunton. Her breathtaking performance at the Harold Pinter Theatre for Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this year, gave me a lasting impression of her stage work; it was a no-brainer to book a ticket and see her again. Yet Follies isn’t just about one performer. Other stars from the musical world are present here such as Janie Dee, Tracie Bennett, Dawn Hope and opera soprano Josephine Barstow, and most of them left the audience positively speechless. It comes as no surprise that they won the audience’s heart with the many rounds of applause they received after each solo number.
Follies is a celebratory and nostalgic work of musical theatre that unveils the happenings of a reunion of the Weisman (pseudo-Ziegfeld) Follies girls, that’s three decades after they first stepped into the revue theatre stage. Director Dominic Cooke, designer Vicki Mortimer and choreographer Bill Deamer are part of a creative team that pushes the boundaries with Sondheim’s imagining, which easily plucks our heartstrings. There’s a live orchestra of twenty musicians, conducted by Nigel Lilley, which are sadly hidden behind the main stage, yet they are masterful at their individual craft. Whether it was a harp, flute or brass instrument, the audience heard the sounds and admired Sondheim’s score. As previously pointed out, this is the first time I’ve seen Follies, yet, still, I found a strong emotional pull towards the musical performances that I had tears rolling down my cheeks, following numerous great numbers including ‘Beautiful Girls’, ‘Broadway Baby’, ‘Who’s that woman?’ and ‘One More Kiss’. I wasn’t sure if it was Sondheim I should be thanking, or the performers, or both. Either way, this was a brilliant performance that had me smiling endlessly.
Based on the writings of Goldman, the NT’s Olivier Theatre sees its stage rotate with one side neon lights with the brand words, ‘Weisman Follies’ while the other side views the backstage mishaps where the reflective Follies walk down memory lane. Yet what was originally intended for a commemoration party, before the theatre is demolished in line for a new parking lot in Manhattan, it haphazardly turns into a cabaret pool full of misplaced feelings and regrets tangled together by ex-lovers reunited.
When Sally (Staunton) attempts to rekindle with her first love Ben (Philip Quast), who ended up getting together with her best friend Phyllis (Janie Dee) instead, there’s a breakdown in everyone’s relationship, including Sally’s marriage to Ben’s old friend Buddy (Peter Forbes). Sally is a loyal wife, but her husband has another lover out of town, while Ben continues to be a philanderer, unable to commit to anyone. Phyllis plays the role of Ben’s battle axe of a wife, yet she too is aware that a separation could be in order and the answer to their marital problems.
Throughout the show, the ex-showgirls reprise their old numbers with the ghosts of their younger selves mirroring their old-time charms, 1940s physicality and glamour moves. At some points, these younger selves interact with the present too. Dawn Hope brings the house down as Stella Deems as she sings ‘ Who’s that woman?’ There’s was a moment at the end of her number where I felt incredibly emotional, which is relevant to every woman that witnesses this performance of the song. The message to take home for me is: be grateful. Be proud of the beauty of womanhood and love yourself.
There’s a sweetness to the Whitmans’ montage of ‘Rain on the Roof’ by Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah as they waltzed across the stage. ‘Broadway Baby’ has cheery notes of innocent minds and youthful simplicity that was heartily sung by Di Botcher. Geraldine Fitzgerald sang the cheeky number ‘Ah, Paris’ with her accentuated French accent, which had the audience giggle and sizzle in their seat.
Tracie Bennett sang ‘I’m Still Here’ with heart and soul as she lifted her face to the sky instilling the young spirit of her character Carlotta, who has a lover at home, twenty years her junior. More moving was Josephine Brastow’s coloratura with ‘One More Kiss.’ Singing as the elder version of Heidi, her vocals were contrasted against her younger counterpart sung by Alison Langer. Sondheim had done something different here. He composed a song to demonstrate to the audience the difference in sound with their voices; the maturity of an experienced soprano against a younger voice. Again, this highlights the powerful sentimentality and young memories which fuel the ongoing theme in Follies.
The final section of Follies is the dream sequence of Loveland. From cabaret, sequin dresses, tap dancing, jazz hands and fascinating dancing, it is the stuff that musical lovers should make it their mission to see! Peter Forbes gets the thumbs up for “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” with two male performers running around in drag as nagging Sally and his needy secret lover Margie.
Changing the tune a little is Staunton performing ‘Losing My Mind’. In a dressing room scene, she gives a stunning performance, dressed in a sultry costume. This multi faceted actress is an excellent singer.
Janie Dee also impresses the audience with her fast and versatile dance moves with ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ which sees her perform uniformly and entertainingly with her ghost counterpart Zizi Strallen. ‘Live, Laugh and Love’ for Ben’s number is full of cabaret sparks as Philip Quast and a company of dancers shake their hats and sticks just before Ben has a mental break down and sobbingly calls for his wife.
There isn’t a show out there that can emulate the way that Follies made me feel after I left the National Teatre. Perhaps a quote by Sondheim himself may capture these feelings ‘Any moment, big or small, is a moment, after all. Seize the moment, skies may fall any moment.’ I’ll be watching Follies again. That I know for sure.