FOLLIES (National Theatre) London: “live” cinema transmission 16th November 2017
From the moment the spotlight hovers on a ghostly, glimmering Broadway showgirl high up on a balcony, and the orchestra starts playing the opening bars of Stephen Sondheim’s fabled musical “Follies”, you know you are in for a memorable and thrilling night.
Set in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theatre in 1971, this is the last ever reunion of Dimitri Weissmann’s (read Florenz Ziegfeld’s) showgirls and stars. Old relationships, friends from the past and rivalries bubble and surface on and around the dusty and abandoned stage.
Imelda Staunton dazzles as Sally Durant, fondly remembering her past encounters with Ben Stone (Philip Quast), husband of her old best friend Phyllis (the superb Janie Dee). As they interact, the ghostly figures of long-lost showgirls move across the stage, and Ben, Sally, Phyllis and Sally’s husband Buddy (Peter Forbes) also have their ghostly younger counterparts there as well to remind them of their past follies.
Also delivering stand-out performances are Josephine Barstow as Heidi: her song “One Last Kiss”, a Strauss/Lehar lieder-type melody sung in counterpoint with her younger self (Alison Langer) is a dramatic and wistful look back at operetta and the incomparable Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion – never has “I’m Still Here” been sung with more chutzpah, charisma and downright feistiness as her version here, she prowls, vamps and wows the audience with her showstopping act.
As always, the trio of great Sondheim songs “Rain on the Roof”, “Ah, Paree” and “Broadway Baby” performed as a non-stop trilogy is one of the highlights of “Follies”. Sung by Billy Barnes and Norma Attalah, “Rain on the Roof” has just the right amount of saccharin and spice, redolent of married double acts of the 1930’s but still tongue in cheek. “Ah, Paree” a paean to the city of light sung by Geraldine Fitzgerald sizzles with Gallic charm and Di Boutcher’s “Broadway Baby” has just the right amount of dedication, verve and damn-it-all dedication to stop the show.
As the show develops, it gets darker in tone, and some of the strongest songs are in the second half – Janie Dee’s “Could I Leave You” is spot-on and her later “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” showcases her dancing talents as well as reminding us of those MGM musicals of the 1950’s in its setting and choreography.
But there are too many excellent moments and performances in this production to single out – the direction by Dominic Cooke is pin-sharp, the choreography by Bill Dearner and the crumbling, dusty set designs of Vicki Mortimer and lighting design by Paule Constable are noteworthy.
Played by a 21-piece orchestra (a rarity these days) the original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are given new life by conductor Nigel Lilley – never has Sondheim’s score sounded better.
My only cavil is that watching this “live” performance being transmitted to cinemas doesn’t give you that “being there” frisson, and (in the case of the performance I attended at the Bo’ness Hippodrome cinema in Scotland) the lack of our audience applauding at the end of a show-stopping song and, indeed, at the finale came across as a bit of a let-down, I wanted to stand up and cheer, just as the audience at the National Theatre were doing on-screen.
This show has restored my faith in bringing classic musicals back to present-day musical theatre!