In Follies, the shine has rubbed off from the Weisman Theatre. The musical sees a group of retired chorus girls who once performed there gather to bid farewell to their old haunt before it is demolished. It is a love letter to the New York of old, the glamour of Broadway and the pain of reaching middle-age with regrets. Older, wearier, and dowdier the former Weisman girls reminisce on beauty lost, the paths not taken, the lives not lived. In particular the story focuses on best friends Phyllis and Sally who have lost touch since they left New York. Life has taken them in different directions – Sally is a housewife still struggling with self image, Phyllis, more confident, more successful, and outwardly living the life they both dreamed of is battling demons of her own. Buddy and Ben, their husbands, are also ruminating on the past and the choices that have both led them to troubled marriages. During the night of their reunion, buried flames reignite, and old hurts must be reckoned with.
Each character appears on stage as a duplicate, the ghosts of their former selves mingle with the returning dancers, watching their future unfold. Through the younger incarnations of the two couples we are given flashbacks to their youth. At the same time the ghosts are conscious of the future, watching warily as their older, but no wiser selves retrace past mistakes. Here, Bill Deamer’s fantastically deft choreography really comes into its own, the sequences in which the two versions of the characters dance around each other – sometimes mirroring, sometimes taking one another’s place – are stunningly good.
“Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee as the central characters are both tremendous”
The original, first staged in 1971, gave only the central four characters past and present versions, but in the new staging director Dominic Cooke extends this to the entire cast. This proves an inspired choice, lending buckets of pizzazz to the big dance numbers – Dawn Hope leads a wonderfully energetic ‘Who’s That Woman?’ in which the older women recreate one of their favourite numbers, and as they dance, their younger selves join in until the stage lights up in a wonderfully uplifting galore of shimmies and heel flicks. In the quieter numbers, such as in Tracie Bennett’s rendition of ‘I’m Still Here’, in which she recounts to the audience the turbulent times she’s survived, the presence of her feather boa’d former self watching from the sidelines heightens the poignancy. Bennett’s song almost steals the whole show – the moment when she stands from her dressing table, belting out the final painfully defiant ‘I’m still here’ is electrifying – rent, much like the rest of the musical with a undercurrent of bittersweetness.
It is this recurring thread of melancholy, beyond the superficial glamour of the bright lights and sequins of the stage, that lingers long after the curtain falls. It has brilliantly tempering effects on the saccharine sweetness most of us expect from musicals. It is perhaps this grounding in the shared human experience of regret and nostalgia that has made Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics from Follies so enduring – as beloved away from the musical theatre stage as they are on it.
James Goldman’s book by contrast has not quite stood up to the test of time – here, the musical sags in parts, feeling a bit dated, certainly staleness is not for a lack of acting chops – the four leads, particularly Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee as Sally and Phyllis are tremendous. Staunton’s singing was a personal revelation, her portrayal of Sally deeply affecting. Dee’s acerbic wit is on sparkling form, making ‘Can I Leave You?’ one of the funniest, most memorable numbers of the musical.
There is much to commend Cooke’s revival, not least the wealth of meaty characters it offers older female actors, a demographic criminally underserved by the showbiz world. It is easy to see why Sondheim is a name almost synonymous with Broadway. Follies, one of his earliest hits, is a true musical theatre lover’s musical, with just the right mix of unadulterated fun and pathos, with fantastic music to boot. It is unlikely to convert anyone who is unsure of the form but for the converted, it is a triumph.
Where? The National Theatre
When? until Jan 3rd
How Much? £48 (limited availability)