Revived and Reinspired: “Follies” by Stephen Sondheim

I’ve given the National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies a 10 out of 10 — not necessarily because it’s perfect. I’ve given it this score because, if this doesn’t earn the 10, what does?

 

When the crowd enters into the impressive, ampitheatrical Olivier, the facade of the old Follies theatre is set at a perpendicular angle to us. There is detritus from another demolished building upstage-left of this, and a nondescript wall upstage-right. Lights illuminate the scene, as well as the air, permeated by dust. The nondescript wall is never really clarified, but the rest of this set will push, pull, and revolve in an extraordinary display of both artistic enterprise and the technology possessed by the Olivier. As I said after curtain call, the designers ought to have come out onstage and shared the warmth of the audience’s applause for the phenomenal work and clear dedication they put into this show.

 

At 7:34 PM, the 7:30 PM show began — I suppose with an audience of 1,600, this is more than understandable. There is one woman in a feather headdress standing at a balcony, and she dances with the music. Well, she tries to dance with the music; she is indeed noticeably out of time with the pit orchestra’s opening instrumentation. But the choreography immediately improves in quality as the revolve begins to spin, and the whole overture is accompanied by a visual spectacle to remember. Mr. Weismann asks the first words of the show, “Young man, are we ready for the party?”, and is answered by a waiter’s “Yes sir, Mr. Weismann.” Or, to put it as the actor playing this waiter so grotesquely delivered it last night, “Yes, sir! Mr. Weismann!”

 

It is in the opening number that the central theatrical gesture of the show can first be seen: the simultaneous action of the Follies players in the present day and of their younger selves from the past. Typically, the present players are downstage, with the past players hanging around at different points around the circumference of the stage, but occasionally, the past players dance through and even interact with their present selves. This is a beautiful manifestation of the power of time and all of the joys and tragedies present therein, and it is executed masterfully. My only question asks what the younger selves are supposed to do when they’re watching their present selves and not interacting. Often, they seem to stare blankly: at these moments, I wished they were just offstage. But aside from a few awkward motivationless moves, this conceit proved formidable throughout.

 

The first real singing we hear in the show is from the basso MC, and his voice rings as heartily and beautifully as any I have ever heard. His is the first demonstration of the unbelievable talent of the actors involved in this production — any of these cast members could dominate any talent show in America and easily carry a one-man show. I write this after having seen the second act (or, without an intermission, second half) version of Phyllis, not after seeing only her first-act version, in which she was delivering her lines as though she were a literal robot. (They are incredibly well-written lines by James Goldman, and the actress saying them seemed to know that too well.) But as the show continued, the audience support prodded her into taking ownership of the words leaving her mouth. (In fact, she’d become what amounted to the audience favorite by the conclusion. So go figure.)

 

Every musical number between the opening and “Who’s That Woman?” could use some work. In my opinion, this is classic Sondheim-smelling-his-own-rear-end, with the music unnecessarily complex and therefore boring to the point of slumber. But, when tap dancing explodes the auditorium in “Who’s That Woman?”, suddenly the show springs to life. Quite literally everything from this point to the final curtain works at a level of 95% and higher — it just begs the question of what happened in the first segment. Certainly, those first numbers are necessary for exposition and narrative construction; it just seems that they could have been handled with some more creative staging and some more speed. Every number in the latter two thirds of the show moves with such celerity, is lit so interestingly, and is performed so vivaciously, that it outdoes even itself.

 

(One note before we move on: after “Who’s That Woman?”, the lead singer of the number shouted “I love life!” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an actor say a truer line after a showstopper.)

 

(Wait, one more note: after “I’m Here,” the actress who has just brought down the house turns her back to the audience, jumps up and down, and reaches with all the height in her body to the spotlight hanging from the rafters. This is the second truest thing I’ve seen an actor do after a showstopper.)

 

Several stunning tableaux are constructed by this director, and the presence of younger selves is treated with such care that one’s heart cannot help but break at the clinging onto youth by the elders of our own day. The direction drives home the show’s themes of love and life, hatred and death, and it makes one wonder why the marketing campaign for this production had nothing to do with any of these, instead depicting a sole blue eye crying in line with Orwell’s 1984. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose: the most incredible transition I’ve ever seen in and of itself could earn this show 7 out of the 10 points I’ve given it, as the conflicts boil into a cacophony of voices until the vaudeville section kicks off the finale numbers at 11:00 on the show clock. An awe-inspiring clashing of life and death, youth and age, hate and love, it all ends in folly — this is the show. This is the best possible version of the show, too. Each character arc’s ending is poignant and moving in a distinct way, and I’m not sure my face was dry for the rest of the production. Set against luxurious set pieces and draped in gorgeous costuming, every performer is at the top of their game, and it can be felt even this morning in the belly of the breakfast room of the London House Hotel in Notting Hill.

 

The last-scene line “For tomorrow?” Oh God… IT IS TOMORROW!” stopped my heart, and should have stopped the show finally. It doesn’t, but it’s so good, that I’ll say it does anyway. The impact of the show and of this line is not easily describable — I’ll work on my critical skills for the future. For now, all I can say is: this is theatre at its zenith. This is the standard for which all productions should strive (even those without the millions of pounds, 41 cast members, 21 pit orchestra members, and freelance professional designers of the National Theatre). I can only hope to someday be a part of a production as brilliant as this one.

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