National Theater Live "Follies": But Wait, There's More

The Cast of "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)
It was a typical winter evening in Boston when the Colonial Theater opened its run of a new Broadway-bound musical on February 1971, in what was then the common practice of trying out a new work in a theater-loving city (like Boston, Philadelphia, Washington or Toronto). It was to be the first time the public would be able to see Producer Hal Prince's Follies, with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by the late James Goldman. Since it was to be a lengthy tinkering and tweaking period of a month, many theater buffs did the typical routine of seeing a show in its first week of performances, and (if it had promise) in the final week of the show before its move to the Great White Way. Many a straight play or musical would, in its last week or so, prove to be unrecognizable from the production first seen right after opening. It could be a thrilling and indescribably communal experience not unlike giving birth (or so they say who have done so). In the case of Follies, (first called The Girls Upstairs, but changed by Prince who preferred the wordplay suggested by the title referencing not only the former Zeigfeld-like “Weissman Girls” but also the follies of several of its characters), it was to be a watershed in musical theater history. In his seminal book about the evolution of Follies written by the show's gofer, Ted Chapin (now President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization), Everything Was Possible (a title taken from the lines “everything was possible and nothing made sense”) outlines how the late inclusion of the entire sequence of “Loveland” songs, to be described below, dramatically changed the show (and perhaps musical theater in general) forever. Though it was a financial flop (Such costumes! Such a set! So many performers!) it was beloved by true aficionados of the form. Years later, there would be more tinkering and tweaking, leading to ever greater successes, culminating in the National Theatre Live HD broadcast of its current version, which defies description; so let's describe it.

"Beautiful Girls" from "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

The year is 1971; the place: the venerable (but now vulnerable) Weissman Theater, about to be torn down to make way for an office building. Dimitri Weissman (an elegantly suave Gary Raymond) has invited all the living “girls” from his annual “Follies” to share and to celebrate those bygone productions. Those women include Sally Durant (a luminous Imelda Staunton) and Phyllis Rogers (a brilliantly brittle Janie Dee) and their respective husbands, traveling salesman Buddy Plummer (a captivating Peter Forbes) and successful ex-politician Benjamin Stone (a heartbreaking Philip Quast), each shadowed eerily by their former ghosts, which becomes evident in the first song, Beautiful Girls, as the ladies descend the no-longer grand staircase, beautifully sung by Roscoe (Bruce Graham) then and now. Before the night is over, each of the “girls” will get a follow spot solo or two. And each one will assure you it's your favorite turn, that is, until the next one. In this virtually plotless work, there are so many stellar solos you'd think you were in Sondheim heaven. Right after Staunton tears us apart with the bleakness of In Buddy's Eyes, you're hit by the trio of Rain on the Roof (the novelty number by the dancing duo the "Whitmans", Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah), Ah, Paris! by the fading chanteuse Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and the show-stopping Broadway Baby by Hattie (the mesmerizing Di Botcher). Then there's Quast's painfully bare The Road You Didn't Take (“the Ben you'll never be, who remembers him?”), followed by the courageous mirror number, Who's That Woman? defiantly delivered by Stella (Dawn Hope) and the “Follies girls”, and the incredibly powerful I'm Still Here dished out by Carlotta (Tracie Bennett) with all the withering world-weariness you could imagine. And let's not forget the harrowing and plaintive duo Too Many Mornings by Quast and Staunton, nor the regretful The Right Girl by Forbes, not to mention the hauntingly lovely duet One Last Kiss by Josephine Barstow as Heidi and Alison Langer as her younger self (“all things beautiful must die”), and the pitch-perfect chill of Dee's Could I Leave You? (“Guess!”).

Imelda Staunton in "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

But wait; there's more. Just as old wounds are revealed and painful regrets are laid bare, the surreal “Loveland” sequence (introduced at the end of the original Boston try-out) delves deeper into the remains of the psyches of the four principals in the form of their earlier selves, Young Sally (Alex Young), Young Phyllis (Zizi Strallen), Young Ben (Adam Rhys-Charles) and Young Buddy (Fred Haig), each spot-on, in the contrapuntal You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through, followed by the the true follies of Buddy (The God-Why-Don't-You-Love Me Blues, never better performed), Sally (with her chillingly desperate Losing My Mind), Phyllis (with her self-deprecating The Story of Lucy and Jessie), and, ultimately, Ben (with his achingly real breakdown, Live, Laugh, Love). Has there ever been a more glorious score, full of pastiches as homages to, among other composers, the work of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Romberg and Friml, Noel Coward, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins?

And has this ravishing score ever been better heard and felt? Rarely has perfect casting been so crucially evident, from the vocal power to the amazing American dialect (overseen by Dialect Coach Penny Dyer) evidenced by this pluperfect cast (including an Australian, Forbes). And it's gorgeous to see as well, from the magnificent costumes (overseen by Irene Bohan) to the extraordinary revolving set by Designer Vicki Mortimer to the brilliant Lighting Design by Paule Constable to the exquisite Sound Design by Paul Groothuis. All, of course, was in the precise hands of Director Dominic Cooke and Choreographer Bill Deamer. Even the orchestrations, by Jonathan Tunick with Josh Clayton (including the use of a honky-tonk piano playing some numbers cut early in the show in Boston, such as Carlotta's Can That Boy Foxtrot) are cleverly effective. Last, but certainly not least, there is the wondrous rendition of that score by Music Director Nigel Lilley and his orchestra of twenty-one musicians. (That number, coupled with the reality of a cast of thirty-seven, tells you why this show doesn't get produced more often).

"Who's That Woman" from "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

The only complaint one might register with this whole production is that it's perhaps too perfect and might deter other talents from future versions and visions of their own. One could pick a nit here or there (sometimes the lighting was too dim or the revolving stage used too often?) but in the end this was close to definitive, the ultimate definition of the word “class”. A show like Follies demands reinvention by its very complexities, and defies its own lyric: no, not all beautiful things must die.

No comments:

Post a Comment