Review by Paul Nelson
Enclosed picture is of the original 1970 production of Stephen Sondheim musical. Art by Byrd
I WOULD have been very sorry indeed to have missed the latest reincarnation
of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies.
It seems to be that every time it is revived, it is revised, and almost every time one goes to see it, there are additions and cuts which never really have much effect overall.
Numbers are added, other numbers are cut, whether or not that is because they are unsatisfactory or because the contracted artiste cannot perform them is a moot point. Certainly, many of the numbers present a massive challenge.
What we have here is a stunning musical idea with superior vintage Sondheim songs, all in search of a book.
The plot of the play is now and always was a mess.
In the present production most of the original script scenes which were sacrificed early on in the history of the show, have been restored and it is enlightening to hear them.
It still does not work.
The plot is about a reunion. In a theatre about to be torn down to become a parking lot, the old impresario, Dmitri Weismann, who staged many of his shows there, throws one last bash for all the remaining living showgirls who were in his 'Follies'.
Consequently, when they all go into their past grandeur, and do the traditional walk down a flight of stairs, the grotesque sight of previous show girls, now old bags from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, seize their chance to try to shine one more time.
Some of them recreate their old numbers; others sing 'plot' songs about what has happened to them, what they had hoped for, and what they had finally become.
The play then focuses on four people, Sally Durant and her husband Buddy Plummer, and Phyllis Rogers and her husband Ben Stone. Sally and Phyllis were showgirls, Buddy and Ben stage door johnnies.
Now, Sally is a housewife in Phoenix Arizona, Ben is a travelling salesman. Phyllis is also a housewife, married to highflying executive Ben, their home is photographed in magazines, and he has been a big wheel in the White House. A sort of Mr Fix It who has decided to take life easier.
At this point, it is important to mention that the theatre is peopled with ghosts of the former showgirls as they were in their heyday, and in their finery shadow the guests, who are now wearing their OS cocktail dresses or worse.
Sally, it appears, has always had the hots for Ben, Phyllis has become disillusioned with Ben who is now a small time philanderer. They both have striven to keep up appearances.
The trouble with the book of this musical, which is very wordy as well as being endowed in this revival with 23 numbers, a long evening in the theatre, is that there is never a true and honest confrontation to the effect that Sally Durant Plummer is basically a silly romantic cow who doesn't listen.
At no time during the association of the foursome, echoed by and acted out in the past by the ghosts of their former selves, did Ben propose to Sally, she just thought he had, nor did he sleep with Sally as Phyllis thought he had. Similarly Buddy had never actually told Sally she was the most essential love in his life, and as a travelling salesman he has another woman 'on the road', and Ben has been so busy carving out a smart career that he has taken Phyllis for granted.
As none of these central themes is clearly and concisely put, it therefore seems that the book of this show is destined to be rewritten as frequently as the play is performed.
For those with the stamina for the evening there are some brilliant musical moments. Starting with the walk down, Beautiful Girls which is a showstopper before the show starts, the first outstanding song is Waiting for the Girls Upstairs, as Buddy, Ben, Sally and Phyllis along with their younger selves sing about their very young dating days.
Solo numbers, Ah, Paris! in which the French soubrette Solange La Fitte explains for no reason why everyone should love Paris, and Broadway Baby, during which the oldest showgirl, Hattie Walker, intones the perennial hopes of all showgirls, that one day when she will make it bigtime.
Where the past and present combine is with the really big showstopper of the first act, Who's That Woman, during which overweight Stella Deems and the old girls get together again in trying to remember a routine, which leaves them winded. Mirror imaged by the ghosts doing the dance steps as they really were, this is one of the most electrifying moments of the show. I missed the mirror frame here, but in an evening of constantly changing sets and costumes, one can't have everything.
It is in the second act when the relationships between the four are laid bare that the evening really takes off dramatically. The old and young foursomes end up screaming acrimonious accusations which dissolves into Loveland, the ideal, or not so ideal, state of affairs as depicted in musical comedy.
Here the follies of all four are laid bare through standard music hall acts. Buddy, dressed as a buffoon, sings the God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues to his wife and mistress, Sally sings the ultimate torch song, Losing My Mind and Phyllis performs the arch split personality song, The Story of Lucy and Jessie. If Lucy was more dressy and Jessie more juicy both women would be just fine.
It is left to Ben Stone in an Astaire number, elegant, urbane, living life to the full and popular with everyone; Live, Love, Laugh to have the mental and physical breakdown proving once and for all what a sham his life has been, to clinch the ending of the show. In this, Chris Wilson proves exactly why he is first choice for the role.
It is essential that I pinpoint the choreography that makes the musical parts of the evening such a delight. Miranda Fellows, with more ingenuity than I would have thought possible for one person, has the cast dancing in a dazzling number of styles. From catwalk, jazz, tap and tango (this last superb) the evening lives and breathes all the best musicals.
Director Robin Sherringham also cleverly takes on this mammoth of a show and succeeds in wrestling it into submission.
Until the book of this piece gets it as succinctly as I have tried to put it, the show will have to be constantly rewritten. It remains worth the candle however and I repeat is an evening I would have been sorry to have missed.
Follies, By James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Robin Sherringham, Choreography by Miranda Fellows, Musical Director Matt Malone, Sets by Stagesets, London and SLX, Bristol, Costumes designed by Maria Bjornson, Lighting Design by Roger Frith, Sound design by Graham Robinson, WITH Lola Gibbard (Sally Durrant Plummer), Jane Kerfoot (Phyllis Rogers Stone), Chris Wilson (Ben Stone), Bob Hamilton (Buddy Plummer), Samantha Boyers (Young Sally), Annie Hayes (Young Phyllis), Richard Hardwick (Young Ben), Gary Hallam (Young Buddy), Don Fellows (Dimitri Weismann), Christopher Howard (Roscoe), Angie Newman (Emily Whitman), Alan Rebbeck (Theodore Whitman), Ruth Silverstone (Solange La Fitte), Iris Harmon (Hattie Walker), Miranda Fellows (Vanessa), Glyn Pardoe (Vincent), Jane Saunders (Young Vanessa), Wezley Mustapha (Young Vincent), Jeanette Broad (Stella Deems), Joanna Alldridge (Carlotta Campion), Helen Hillier (Heidi Schiller), Louise Hillier (Young Heidi). Presented by Ian Alexander for The Wimbledon Civic Theatre Trust Ltd, A Companions Theatre Company Production at Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon. 020 8540 0362.