Direct from London
.The award-winning National Theatre’s all-etr case all-star production of “Follies” is being broadcast live internationally to selected movie theaters. Set in New York in 1971, we find a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre and learn that on the following day, the iconic building will be demolished. Now some thirty years after their final performance, the Follies girls gather to have a few drinks, sing a few songs and lie about themselves.
With a cast that stars Imelda Staunton, director Dominic Cooke’s production is played on a bare stage against half-bulldozed brick walls half-bulldozed where the theatre’s ghosts mingle, we see a philosophical meditation on the passage of time and the agonies of aging.
Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical was, originally, a nostalgic fanfare for old Broadway as its glamour gave way to decay; yet today it resembles a lament for the whole nation. We are at a Broadway reunion (the “first and last” for Dimitri Weismann’s legendary vaudeville revue). The stars of the pre-war era revisit their old haunt. New York’s showgirls have aged. As they reminisce and repeat their old routines, their younger selves (wearing silvery, sequined ball gowns) stand on the edges of the ruined auditorium like ghosts in the wings. This is a showbiz séance of sorts that is filled with glitter and memories of the past.
At its center are two middle-aged couples, former showgirls and their men whose marriages have stalled in middle age. Sally Durrant (Staunton) is now a small-town mother of two, who is considering leaving her dull husband Buddy (Peter Forbes) to rekindle her feelings for her old flame Ben Stone (Philip Quast) who married her friend and fellow “Folly” Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee). Reunited for the first time in years, the past comes flooding back to them all. Their younger selves dance off with one another.
The show is filled with sadness and regret and an elegy for lost youth and missed chances. “The Road Not Taken,” as one song has it. While the two young showgirls (Zizi Strallen and Alex Young) in their matching dresses, are like peas in a pod. Staunton’s Sally has become a rattle of anxieties, breathless at a chance to turn back the clock, while Dee makes clear that Phyllis has constructed her classy exterior, teaching herself “the art of life.” Their husbands, meanwhile, have filled out for the good: Buddy is an oil executive with a 29-year-old mistress; Ben is a respected philanthropist and politician. It seems unfair that the men are no better off or happier with their lot. They’re no longer the handsome suitors waiting at stage door. Director Cooke catches the mood of a night of nostalgia.
Sondheim’s score combines affectionate vaudeville pastiches with heartfelt book numbers and expands the theme through other showgirl stories. “One delirious old couple are still dancing 50 years later; an old flirt is still flitting between gorgeous young men. Di Botcher belts “Broadway Baby” with an impish delight, luxuriating in her follow spot and reliving her youth for a moment while Tracie Bennett’s sings “I’m Still Here” like a survivor with shellshock.”
The Ensemble numbers give us the joyous spectacle of middle-aged women dancing toe-to-toe with their svelte young selves, matching them step-for-step. The production becomes a melancholy meditation on life and old times. Sondheim’s score sets memory to melody. The here-and-now might be humdrum, but the past shines and sings. Throughout the show Goldman and Sondheim bring the ideas of the past and performance together. Reunions are places we perform our identities and re-enact the past and so are memories. The theater, in “Follies,” is a place where people act out their fantasies and, indeed, their follies. Paradoxically, it’s also a place that gives us the truth.