Friday, 17 November 2017

Theatre at the cinema: Sour cocktail with a great taste

Stephen Sondheim: FOLLIES


This was the latest West End show to come to a movie theater near me last night. I saw it in London in 1987 – twice – with Dolores Gray and then Eartha Kitt singing the show’s ‘anthem’ “I’m Still Here”. This new production goes back to Stephen Sondheim’s original vision: a single extended act and a character development study (wow – in a musical?) rather than a plot-driven drama.

A crumbling brick wall on a revolving stage creates the minimalist set, with a fire escape replacing the grand staircase down which the chorus girls would have paraded in the heyday of the Ziegfeld-style Follies decades earlier. At this 1970s reunion (the theatre is soon to be torn down) the focus is on two couples whose marriages have gone very stale: Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben. Sally was in love with Ben (still is) but she married Buddy, who is a serial philanderer, as is Ben and also Phyllis. These four interact with their younger selves in crisp scenes and songs. If this show were a cocktail – and it very much is - it could only be a whisky sour.

Follies makes a kind of 'companion piece' to Sond-heim’s earlier show Company, which took an equally cynical view of several marriages from the viewpoint of a ‘confirmed bachelor’ (the character wasn’t gay, although that was how gay men used to be referred to - PM Ted Heath for instance!). Some of the songs and production numbers in Follies are re-runs of pastiche vaudeville numbers with the players shadowed by and even dancing with their younger selves .

But it’s the bitterest lyrics – ‘torch songs’ - that stand out, show-casing failed relationships and the disappointments life dishes out. ‘Could I Leave You?’ is sung by Phyllis (Janie Dee who kept reminding me of Sigourney Weaver). ‘Losing My Mind’ is Sally’s big number – Imelda Staunton came into her own with this, though I felt she was underplaying the character in the first half of the show. 

Tracie Bennett sings "I'm Still Here"
The absolute show-stopper (equivalent to ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ in Company) is ‘I’m Still Here’ sung by retired stage siren Carlotta (Tracie Bennett). The best ever performance of the song, for me, was Carol Burnett’s in a concert version of Follies from the Lincoln Center in 1985. Shirley MacLaine sang it memorably in Postcards From the Edge, playing a character meant to be Debbie Reynolds. In this new production Tracie Bennett comes close to eclipsing everybody else. Ms Bennett memorably recreated Judy Garland on stage some years ago – a pity she won’t be in the next year’s new bio-pic (Renee Zell-weger). Much as Elaine Stritch lit up the stage with ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ in the 1972 Company, Tracie Bennett stole the show for me last night.

And what a show this is! Catch a repeat when they show an 'Encore' at your local multiplex.

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