Ever since Follies opened at the Winter Garden in 1971 it has been called a “problem” musical. Dyed-in-the-wool Sondheim-ites, consider it a masterpiece, yet it has always failed to resonate with the general public. Open-ended runs never turn a profit, including Harold Prince’s stunning original production. The reason has generally been attributed to the fact that there is no one in James Goldman’s patchy and plotless book to root for.
As any Follies aficionado knows, the setting is a derelict Broadway theatre where, between the wars, its legendary owner, Dimitri Weismann (Gary Raymond) annually presented his lavish Follies. The theatre is about to face the wrecking ball for an office block, and as a last hurrah, Weismann has invited several ex-Follies girls and their spouses to a nostalgic reunion.
Of the 11 women who show up, Goldman’s book focuses on just two: Sally (Imelda Staunton) and Phyllis (Janie Dee), both of whose marriages are in trouble. Though Sally is married to Buddy (Peter Forbes), a philandering salesman from Phoenix, she has always carried a torch for Ben (Philip Quast), Phyllis' wealthy, ex-politician husband. For the bilious Phyllis, there is no love lost for Sally nor Ben.
Augmented by some of the finest songs Sondheim has ever written, and further enhanced by the ghost-like appearances of their younger selves, this quartet of unhappy souls, with their unrealised dreams, frustrations and the inevitable compromises life demands, cry out for your sympathy and understanding. But because the sketchy book is no match for the brilliance of Sondheim’s classic score, it is hard to get involved with these tiresome people and their unfulfilled lives.
In the first 20 minutes or so, during which all the characters are introduced, there is so much activity in director Dominic Cooke’s staging, and in Vicki Mortimer’s atmospheric but constantly revolving set, it’s hard to get a handle on any of them and their backstories. However, as the show progresses, the four protagonists (though not their younger counterparts) become more clearly defined – though not more endearing.
The best performance of the evening is Staunton’s. Though physically miscast as an erstwhile Follies chorine, this diminutive powerhouse, with a singing voice to match, comes close to breaking your heart as the unrequited Sally. Her interpretation of the show’s best-known song, "Losing My Mind," is the most forceful I’ve heard. If only Goldman’s book were as adept as Arthur Laurents’ for Gypsy, Follies would undoubtedly qualify as one of the greatest of all Broadway musicals. But it isn’t and it doesn’t.
Given the number of starry, high-octane revivals this show has enjoyed since 1971, its stellar combination of both Broadway and Hollywood legends who have appeared in it is almost unique. Apart from Staunton, who, as she recently proved in Gypsy, can hold her own among the best of them, the present company, though lacking in marquee value, don’t, for the most part, lack talent.
The always-reliable Dee nails the dazzlingly sardonic "Could I Leave You" and effectively pinpoints the duality in "The Story of Lucy and Jesse." As Carlotta, a former movie-star who got her start on Broadway, Tracie Bennett has a brave stab at "I’m Still here," a paean to staying power the great Elaine Stritch made her own. I was less happy with Di Botcher’s rather butch take on "Broadway Baby," which isn’t the show-stopper it should be.
Not surprisingly, top vocal honours go to opera singer Josephine Barstow, who, as veteran Viennese diva Heidi Schiller (together with her radiant younger self thrillingly sung by Alison Langer) makes the Sigmund Romberg pastiche "Just One Kiss" one of the highlights of the evening. On the male side, Quast and Forbes do the best they can with the underwritten roles of the two husbands.
If Follies, is, above all things, a bittersweet warning that nostalgia is another country to which it is impossible to return, it also explores the duality between glamour – as depicted in the glitzy "Loveland" sequence towards the end of the show – and the harsh realities of life, with its broken promises, shattered hopes and the painful truths it forces people to confront.
Director Cooke, abetted by Sondheim’s memorable score and lyrics that both wittily and poignantly reflect the duality of the show’s premise, keep the message its creators want to convey well up front. As for Bill Deamer’s choreography, lets just call it discreet. If, in the end, this revival isn’t the triumph we were all hoping for and lacks the dazzle of the original production, it’s definitely still worth a look.