Monday, December 4, 2017

Follies at the National: Challenges and Triumphs

Photo by Johan Persson.

The National Theatre has loaded a ton of money into Dominic Cooke’s revival of Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman Follies, the NT Live transcription of which is still doing the rounds. The ensemble numbers thirty-seven, not quite up to the cast of fifty that opened the musical on Broadway in I971 but substantial. Vicki Mortimer’s gargantuan set, its perspective shifting constantly as the Olivier Theatre revolve spins, evokes the dilapidated grandeur of the theatre that housed Dimitri Weissman’s Follies annually between the World Wars and is now scheduled (in 1971) to be converted into an office building. Paule Constable’s eerie lighting accentuates the ghostliness of the proceedings, as the Weissman girls reunite for a one-night-only reunion and we see their younger selves shadowing them as they recreate old production numbers and – in the case of the four principals, Phyllis and Ben Stone (Janie Dee and Philip Quast) and Sally and Buddy Plummer (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes), fragments from their early-forties lives, when showgirls Phyllis and Sally shared a flat and law-school classmates Ben and Buddy courted them while Ben and Sally carried on a clandestine love affair. (Zizi Strallen, Alex Young, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig play, respectively, the younger versions of Phyllis, Sally, Ben and Buddy.) Mortimer’s costumes work fine, too, with a couple of odd, glaring exceptions. Dee’s sack-like party gown is one. The other is Staunton’s, which is green and so leaves the audience puzzled at her insistence, in “Too Many Mornings,” that she should have worn green because she wore green the last time she saw Ben, the man whom she’s fantasized into the love of her life she’s never gotten over.

Cooke, choreographer Bill Deamer and musical arranger Josh Clayton (working with Jonathan Tunick’s 1971 orchestrations) have done their damnedest to be faithful to the conception by the original collaborators, Sondheim, Goldman, director Harold Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett. For the faithful, let me be specific. They’ve restored Phyllis’s vamp number, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” which has sometimes been replaced through the last four and a half decades with either “Uptown, Downtown” or “Ah, But Underneath.” Forbes’s rendition of “The Right Girl” ends not with a dance break, as it has in every subsequent production I’ve seen but, as it once did, with the spoken line, “Oh, shit,” a recognition that, though Buddy has a young mistress in Dallas who adores him, he’s still in thrall to Sally, who treats him badly. (Sondheim gave Buddy a second song, “Buddy’s Blues,” which explores his romantic dilemma in the form of a parody of a burlesque-house novelty number.) And the show runs without an intermission, as Sondheim, Goldman and Prince always wanted it to. It did when it tried out in Boston, but Ted Chapin’s book Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical 'Follies' tells us that Prince put in an intermission later on in the out-of-town run and retained it for New York, though not consistently: my program from the Winter Garden Theatre from June 1971, like the one I have from Boston’s Colonial Theatre from five months earlier, indicates that there’s no intermission. Ever since then, the show has broken for an interval after the Ben-Sally romantic duet “Too Many Mornings.” The only way in which the National’s Follies veers from tradition is in not filling out the cast with one-time stars making comeback appearances, but after all it’s a London revival, not a Broadway (or Paper Mill Playhouse or Lincoln Center) one. The only actors familiar to me on the Olivier stage were Staunton and Dee, though I certainly recognized Quast’s name; he’s a well-known London musical theatre actor.

Josephine Barstow, Gemma Page, Janie Dee. Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Tracie Bennett in Follies. (Photo: Johan Persson)

This Follies has garnered sell-out crowds, five-star reviews and standing ovations – rare at the National though no longer unusual, I’ve noticed, at West End musicals. Is it great? In the case of this revered, fascinating but unmistakably flawed musical, that question really means, 'Did Cooke manage to figure out a way to disguise or subvert the problems in Goldman’s tinny, acrid book, to lighten the combined apparatus of the concept and Sondheim’s brilliant but overloaded score, and to figure out a way to make the intermittently effective but mostly impossible “Loveland” section work?' (In “Loveland,” the four protagonists’ psychic struggles are embodied in pastiche show numbers that culminate in a sort of breakdown for Ben and Sally.) The answer is no. And this production has problems of its own, beginning with the unevenness of the principals. As Goldman and Sondheim have written her, Phyllis is so wittily self-aware that she’s practically Brechtian, and Dee, who has high-comedy chops, gets right on her glittering wavelength. She digs every ounce of irony out of her two solos, “Could I Leave You?” and “Lucy and Jessie,” without ever overstating either – quite a trick, especially for any rendition of “Could I Leave You?,” which is about as subtle as “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. (Sondheim was on the cusp of forty when he wrote the latter and just past it when he wrote the former, but they always strike me as lyrics that a very young man of prodigious gifts would pen about the horrors of a moneyed middle age.) Forbes is quite good as Buddy, especially on “The Right Girl,” even if he doesn’t banish my memories of Gene Nelson in the original. But though Quast has a few affecting moments – Ben’s thunderstruck response when Phyllis reveals that she’s been unfaithful to him and the confusion that brings “Live, Laugh, Love” and the “Loveland” segment overall to a crashing finish – he’s mostly colorless. And Staunton, often a magnificent performer, works so hard at conveying Sally’s mess of conflicting feelings that she comes on too strong and you get weary of the character and, worse, lose sympathy for her. Her entrance, fervent and nervous and schoolgirlish, is potent, and I loved what she did with the final verse of “In Buddy’s Eyes.” But that’s when she’s at her most still and least fussy.

Deamer’s choreography is efficient but only two numbers stand out, “Lucy and Jessie” and “Who’s That Woman?,” which the ex-showgirls refer to as the mirror number and which is marvelous in both conception and execution. (Dawn Hope leads it with so much spirit and she’s so beautiful to watch that you hardly mind that she looks about twenty years too young for the role of hard-boiled Stella Deems.) I didn’t like Gary Raymond, who seems to be playing Weissman as Satan. But some of the musical performers give the show its most vivid moments, like Di Botcher in “Broadway Baby” and Josephine Barstow, dropping her huge, horsey jaw to get out the minor-key operetta ballad “One More Kiss” in all its wasted, warbling splendor. And Tracie Bennett is simply astonishing in Carlotta Campion’s famous been-around-the-block ballad “I’m Still Here”: she moves from good humor tinged ever so slightly with regret to reaffirmation without hitting a single emotional cliché. God knows how she does it, since if any Sondheim number has been overdone (besides “Send in the Clowns”) it’s “I’m Still Here.” I felt as if I’d never heard it before. The National Theatre Follies may not be a triumph, however much it’s rumored to be, but Tracie Bennett sure is.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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