*Follies,* 11/20/17

November 23, 2017

Richard, Alan, and I saw a screening of *Follies* from the National Theatre in London on 11/20/17.  You might think this is more like a movie, so why am I reviewing it as a musical, but it was live when it was filmed, and we were the live studio audience, so I see it as a live performance.

 

*Follies* is my favorite musical ever.  It was written in 1971, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman.  It's about the reunion of a group of women who had been in the Weissman Follies (aka Ziegfeld Follies), which ran for every year "between the wars."  The main characters are two married couples: Sally and Phyllis were Follies girls back in the day, they both fell in love with Ben, who married Phyllis.  Sally married Ben's friend, Buddy.  None of them are happy.

 

The one element that makes the show most fascinating is that nearly each of the characters onstage has a ghost who often shadows him or her, an embodiment of that person's younger self.  Sometimes the older characters watch their younger selves play out a scene from the past, sometimes an older character reaches for a younger character, and in one memorable scene, the four leads and their four younger selves all holler at each other.  This production did an especially brilliant job of utilizing the ghosts in a way that made sense.

 

The big draw, casting-wise, was Imelda Staunton.  The three of us (Richard, Alan, and I) saw her do *Gypsy* on PBS, and Alan was lucky enough to have seen it onstage in London.  We were excited at the prospect of her doing this show.  I knew that she had just done *Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?* at the National, so I assumed that she'd be playing Phyllis, the brittle, sarcastic one.  I was surprised and intrigued that she was playing Sally, the wounded, delusional one.  She was fantastic.  Richard thought she was maybe a little overdone, but I loved her.  Sally is a mess, and she played her as a mess.  And she sang really well.

 

When Sondheim, Goldman, and director Hal Prince were casting the original Broadway production, they decided that when they could, they should hire actors who were well known to the audience, but not people they had seen in a while, or not in that context.  This was so that when Alexis Smith or Yvonne de Carlo made their entrance, the audience would applaud and have that rush of love for a star of yesteryear.  This would add depth to the experience, and make their demise all that more heartbreaking.  I think the show is good enough that this isn't a requirement: I think if I were to see a community theater production in Waukegan, and the performers were good, I would still be drawn into the story and love it, I wouldn't need that extra level of history with the performers.  But it does add a lot, and for the most part it was missing with this London cast.  Staunton was the only actor we really knew very well.

 

Janie Dee played Phyllis, and she was delicious.  She really dug into the role - - her character has all the best lines, and she chewed into those lines like there was no tomorrow.  She did a great job with the songs, and she was a fantastic dancer.  Philip Quast played Ben.  He has a handsome voice and gave a good performance, but he didn't have the charisma or panache that you want from Ben.  Peter Forbes was wonderful as Buddy.  It wasn't a surprise that he was a hit with "Buddy's Blues," it's such a great number.  The surprise is that he made sense of "The Right Girl," which I've always felt was the one dumb song in the show.  Forbes did it so well, it now merely seemed like the worst song in the show, but not necessarily a bad song.  Do you see the distinction?

 

There were women I knew in two of the supporting roles.  Tracie Bennett played Carlotta and had a field day with "I'm Still Here."  Richard and I saw her as Judy Garland in *End of the Rainbow,* that was a fantastic performance.  She was giving us the same show biz mania in this role, and it worked.  Josephine Barstow played Heidi, the opera singer.  Barstow was a big star in the 70s and 80s, it was a thrill to see her in a show.  Her voice is obviously not what it once was, but she's 77 years old, she still sounds pretty damn good.

 

My favorite number in the show is "Who's That Woman."  It's always fascinating to see how the director and choreographer handle the ghosts - - six or seven of the older ladies decide to do their old show-stopping number, and they're joined by their younger selves.  This production used longer versions of the dance numbers, and in this number the ghosts had a minute or two to themselves.  The lighting turned blue and we had the sense that we were truly seeing it as it had been done in the 30s.  It gave me chills, and gave me a new realization about the show: yes, the older characters are getting together for a reunion and they're being visited by ghosts of their former selves, but the whole impetus of the reunion is the destruction of the THEATER.  Mr. Weissman decides to get the group together because the theater is being torn down to build an office building.  So it's the theater itself that's being haunted, maybe the ghosts live there full time.  It feels good to discover things in this show after all of these years, it's a sign of how rich and complex the show is.

 

* * *

 

FORMER FOLLIES

Just for fun, I'll list the leads and the director for each production I've seen.  I'll give you a little shorthand for the characters:

 

Phyllis ("Could I Leave You?")

Sally ("Losing My Mind")

Ben ("The Road You Didn't Take")

Buddy ("Buddy's Blues")

Carlotta ("I'm Still Here")

Hattie ("Broadway Baby")

Stella ("Who's That Woman?")

Heidi ("One More Kiss")

Solange ("Ah, Paris")

Emily ("Listen To the Rain On the Roof")

 

2001, Broadway

Director: Matthew Warchus

Phyllis: Blythe Danner

Sally: Judith Ivey

Ben: Gregory Harrison

Buddy: Treat Williams

Carlotta: Polly Bergen

Hattie: Betty Garrett

Stella: Carol Woods

Heidi: Joan Roberts

Solange: Jane White

Emily: Marge Champion

 

2007, City Center Encores

Director: Casey Nicholaw

Phyllis: Donna Murphy

Sally: Victoria Clark

Ben: Victor Garber

Buddy: Michael McGrath

Carlotta: Christine Baranski

Hattie: Mimi Hines

Stella: Joanne Worley

Heidi: Lucine Amara

Solange: Yvonne Constant

Emily: Anne Rogers

 

2011, Kennedy Center

Director: Eric Schaeffer

Phyllis: Jan Maxwell

Sally: Bernadette Peters

Ben: Ron Raines

Buddy: Danny Burstein

Carlotta: Elaine Paige

Hattie: Linda Lavin

Stella: Terri White

Heidi: Rosalind Elias

Solange: Régine

Emily: Susan Watson

 

2012, Broadway

The same cast as Kennedy Center, with these changes:

Hattie: Jane Houdyshell

Solange: Mary Beth Peil

 

2017, West End

Director: Dominic Cooke

Phyllis: Janie Dee

Sally: Imelda Staunton

Ben: Philip Quast

Buddy: Peter Forbes

Carlotta: Tracie Bennett

Hattie: Di Botcher

Stella: Dawn Hope

Heidi: Josephine Barstow

Solange: Geraldine Fitzgerald

Emily: Norma Attallah

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